California ramps up census push in final hours

An illustration of the 2020 census. (Image: Maria Dryfout, via Shutterstock)

California launched an aggressive push through Thursday night to bolster its census tally, immediately following a U.S. Supreme Court decision blocking the count.

“We’re pulling out all the stops,” said Ditas Katague, director of California Complete Count, the state’s census office.

On Tuesday, the high court issued a terse order, rejecting the rulings by U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh of San Jose and the U.S. 9th Circuit appellate court that allowed the census to continue through the end of October.

California has long feared an undercount and believes a stymied count could cost the state billions of dollars over the decade.

The Supreme Court noted its decision is temporary pending a final decision on the merits of the case — which could take months. Thus, the Supreme Court’s ruling, sought by the Trump administration, effectively halts the census and left a window of about 48 hours to continue counting through Thursday night.

The Trump Administration estimates that about 99.9 percent of those who need to be counted actually have been counted – a figure that has raised suspicions, at least in California.

The census is the critical yardstick for the distribution of federal funds and the constitutionally required redrawing of political districts. When the data ultimately is approved, it will serve as the basis for new legislative and congressional districts in the 2022 elections. Those include 120 legislative districts, potentially 53 congressional seats and four districts of the Board of Equalization.

A January 2020 report by the Brookings Institution’s William H. Frey said California may lose one of its 53 House seats, one of 10 states that face the loss of a seat.

California, the nation’s most populace state with nearly 40 million people, has long feared an undercount and believes a stymied count could cost the state billions of dollars over the decade. Early on, the state committed big money to ensure as accurate a count a possible, believing that whatever the state spent — about $187.4 million — it would pale in comparison with the potential loss of federal dollars.

“The accuracy is key to me.” — Ditas Katague

Ending the count early also gives the U.S. Census Bureau less time to deal with the data. The Bureau is required to submit its final report to the president and Congress by Dec. 31.

A 2015 estimate said California received $77 billion in census-linked funds, or about four out of every five federal dollars flowing to California. In 2018, the census-based dollars came to about $100 billion – representing about a third of all state spending.

Katague and other experts believe the most accurate data stems from the “self-response” rate – the households that sent in their answered questions online and relatively early, and didn’t require in-person, follow-up visits.

“The accuracy is key to me,” Katague said, “and it gets better when you self-respond. I fixate on the self-response rate because I know it’s the most accurate.”

The census questions include how many people live in the home or apartment, including children; their names, ages and sexes and how they are related. The census does not ask for Social Security numbers, bank information or citizenship status. President Trump had pushed for the inclusion of a citizenship question in 2019, but the Supreme Court blocked it.

Through Monday, about 69.4 percent of California households had self-responded, or some 10.5 million homes. So far, 1.2 million more households responded in 2020 than 2010, while 1.9 million more responded than in 2000, the state reported.

Of some four million households identified as the hardest of the hard-to-count – often including marginalized populations, the homeless, undocumented immigrants and others – the state reached about 2.4 million.

As of last week, about 44 of California’s 58 counties had exceeded their self-response rate of 2010, as had 335 of the state’s 482 cities, the state said.

Meanwhile, Katague urged people who haven’t responded yet to the census questionnaire to do so – fast.

“If you’re not seen, you’re not counted,” she said. “We’ve really got about T-minus 40 hours, she said Wednesday morning.


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