Can the census be delayed? Should it?

We’ve been keeping an eye on how the census is rolling out this year and the ways that the pandemic is impacting the Census Bureau’s ability to get the job done. Apparently there are sufficient concerns over our ability to get everyone counted that both the President and the people in charge of this constitutional requirement are considering delaying the resumption of field work until at least June, meaning that the deadline for getting the final numbers compiled would also be pushed back further toward the end of the year. (Associated Press)

The Trump administration wants to delay deadlines for the 2020 census because of the coronavirus outbreak, a move that if approved would push back timetables for releasing data used to draw congressional and legislative districts, the chair of the House oversight committee said Monday.

U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney said administration officials were asking that all field operations be postponed until June 1 and that the deadline for wrapping up the nation’s head count be pushed back until Oct. 31.

Field operations for the 2020 census have been suspended since mid-March and were set to resume this week. The deadline for finishing the head count also had been pushed back from the end of July to mid-August because of the pandemic.

As far as whether or not we can legally delay the completion of the count, that should be fairly obvious. The Constitution has little to say on the matter beyond specifying that it take place every ten years “in such manner as [Congress] shall by law direct.” The process of taking the census has already begun, so it’s taking place on schedule. The founders didn’t set a time limit for completion.

There is a federal law in place saying that the count has to be turned over to the states by the end of the year to they can begin the redrawing of congressional districts, but Congress obviously has the ability to amend or suspend that law temporarily. It does seem clear, however, that an agreement between the executive and legislative branches will be required to legally do it.

What’s the alternative? There really isn’t one. Your options are to either wait until the full count is finished or turn in an incomplete and inaccurate figure. The latter would be unconstitutional since the census isn’t optional.

And what’s the rush? If the states can’t start redrawing the districts until April instead of in January, that’s hardly the end of the world. That process tends to drag on for ages anyway and half of the new maps that are drawn up will probably be challenged in court.

At the state level, I suppose that the Governors could, at least in theory, declare the census an “essential business” because of the Constitution, but the work that remains involves workers going door-to-door and checking on all the people who didn’t return their forms or complete them online. As long as any states have shelter in place orders still in effect, that’s probably about the worst idea imaginable.

I realize it’s hard to find anything in the country these days that can’t be politicized, but this should be the rare exception. Congress can easily take care of this relatively minor detail and they should do so promptly.