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Census 'Anomalies' Could Thwart Trump's Bid To Alter Next Electoral College

A Joe Biden supporter holds up a phone displaying the Electoral College map in Philadelphia on Nov. 7.
John Minchillo
A Joe Biden supporter holds up a phone displaying the Electoral College map in Philadelphia on Nov. 7.

Updated at 8:25 p.m. ET

The U.S. Census Bureau has determined it cannot put together the first set of results from this year's census by its Dec. 31 deadline. The bureau says it needs to resolve routine "processing anomalies."

So, the bureau is looking toward Jan. 26 as a new target date, according to a bureau employee who learned about the shift during an internal meeting Thursday and spoke to NPR on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation in the workplace.

The schedule change means the handing-off of census numbers that determine each state's share of congressional seats and Electoral College votes for the next decade will take place after President Trump's term ends, thwarting Trump's unprecedented attempt to change who is counted in this key count.

"These types of processing anomalies have occurred in past censuses," the bureau's director, Steven Dillingham, said in a statement released Thursday. "I am directing the Census Bureau to utilize all resources available to resolve this as expeditiously as possible."

The first census results the bureau releases are the latest state population counts, which federal law requires the commerce secretary, who oversees the bureau, to report to the president by Dec. 31 after the bureau reviews all of the information it has collected to try to spot and fix any errors.

Beginning in May, career officials at the bureau gave early warning they could no longer deliver the state numbers by year's end because of disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

In fact, a month earlier in April, the Trump administration asked Congress to extend the census reporting deadlines by four months — a proposal that has been picked up by House Democrats and a small bipartisan group of senators but has yet to become a law.

The administration, however, made an about-face in July. It began pressuring the bureau to stick with the Dec. 31 deadline after Trump issued a presidential memo calling for the removal of unauthorized immigrants from the census numbers used to reallocate the 435 seats in the House of Representatives, as well as electoral votes in presidential elections, among the states.

Trump would need to receive the numbers before his term ends on Jan. 20 to try to alter the numbers he's required to hand off to Congress for certification.

The bureau's public information office has not responded to NPR's questions about the current timing of the release of the first set of numbers.

But Al Fontenot, the bureau's top career official in charge of this year's count, softened the ground last month by confirming that the bureau may not be able to deliver the results by the end of December.

"It is our plan right now that if we need more time to fix a problem that comes up that would impact the quality of census, we're taking it," Fontenot said during an Oct. 21 press briefing.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat from New York who chairs the House Oversight and Reform Committee, sent a letter Thursday to Dillingham, the bureau's director, asking to see by Nov. 24 all internal documents about any data processing problems, as well as the schedule for reviewing census results.

"Unfortunately, the Committee was not informed about these anomalies before they became public," wrote Maloney, who added the bureau has canceled a number of weekly briefings that were scheduled this month for the committee.

The letter also cites reporting by The New York Times on the earliest release date for the first set of census results as Jan. 26, which was first confirmed by Talking Points Memo.

The bureau's announcement about irregularities in the data comes just over a week before the Supreme Court is expected to hear oral arguments on Nov. 30 over Trump's attempt to exclude unauthorized immigrantsfrom the census apportionment counts.

Three-judge panels in three lower courts have unanimously declared Trump's memo to be unlawful and in violation of afederal law requiring the president to deliver a report to Congress of "the whole number of persons in each State" as determined by the once-a-decade count, while one of the courts also found the memo to be unconstitutional.

Even if Trump were to overcome legal barriers, however, it remains unclear whether the administration can produce numbers of unauthorized immigrants living in each state that could be subtracted from the total population counts of the 2020 census.

So far, Justice Department attorneys have told multiple courts that the administration has not come up with a final method yet, aside from removing unauthorized immigrants in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.