SCOTUS: We're done with the census

Even while they are short one justice, the Supreme Court has been getting plenty of emergency requests to act on since returning to work. The latest of these involved a decision to halt the census count on October 31st. (Trick or treat?) In a ruling handed down last night, the Supremes overruled a lower court that allowed the process to drag on further and agreed with the government that we need to get things wrapped up by the end of the month. A number of media outlets have been playing the usual game of describing this as some sort of skullduggery engineered by Donald Trump, but that’s simply fake news. The people asking to finish up the process on schedule were actually the heads of the Census Bureau.

The Supreme Court on Tuesday granted the Trump administration’s request to stop the 2020 census from continuing through the end of October.

The administration had asked the nation’s highest court to suspend an order from a federal judge in California last month that allowed the once-a-decade head count of every US resident to continue until Oct. 31.

The Census Bureau argued that it wanted to halt the count so that it could begin crunching the numbers to meet a Dec. 31 deadline for turning in the results, used for deciding how many congressional seats each state gets.

The Bureau needs to get started on the job of crunching the numbers if they want to complete the task by the end of the year. That’s important for a couple of reasons. Having the numbers, no matter how accurate they might be (more on that in a moment), is not only required by the Constitution and federal law, but they’re needed to determine the allocation of representatives for the states and determine federal funding levels for the next budget.

The usual suspects are already up in arms, claiming that stopping early will result in an undercount of the poor, minorities and illegal immigrants. That may be so, but we should all acknowledge one of our government’s dirty little secrets. The census isn’t perfectly accurate and it’s never been perfectly accurate in the history of our country. The homeless are notoriously hard to count and illegal aliens frequently don’t want to give their personal information to anyone from the government for obvious reasons. Other people simply refuse to comply or may forget to do it, and we don’t have the resources to track every one of them down. Yes, there’s a law on the books making it illegal to not complete the census, but we’ve prosecuted only a handful of people for that in living memory.

The Census Bureau is forced to tell everyone that they have a good count every ten years. If they don’t claim to have counted everyone we’re in violation of the Constitution. But that doesn’t mean we’re actually going to deliver a reliable product in the end. One Columbia University professor who oversaw the 2000 census told the New York Times recently that he “does not expect a census of the quality that the Census Bureau will even want to release the data.” Another government contractor working on the statistics for this year’s census described the current situation as being “truly, truly, hair-on-fire awful.”

But it’s not as if 2020 will be some sort of historical outlier. We know that the census has been more inaccurate than the government could ever admit in the past. We had one census where all of the records for the entire San Francisco region were lost in a fire. Did they go back and count everyone there again? Nope. The clock had already run out and the wheels of government needed to continue turning. So everyone simply looked the other way and got on with their business. That’s just how the process works.

So before you begin to panic, you should probably maintain a bit of perspective. The 2020 census won’t be perfect and it might not even be as accurate as the last few. But it will still be a generally good representation of how many people are in the country and where they live. When you’re talking about roughly 350 million people, you can miss by a fairly significant number and still come in under a reasonable margin of error.