Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Amid growing fears of an underfunded and “sabotaged” count in 2020, a group of city leaders appealed to Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross.
More than 160 mayors issued a joint letter to Wilbur Ross, the secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce, outlining several deep concerns with the 2020 Census on Wednesday. Their ask was straightforward: Please take it seriously.
Leaders representing small and large cities across the country urged Ross to address several specific priorities that may be key to ensuring that the count is not a disaster. Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin outlined his fears in even starker terms, accusing the Trump administration of “sabotaging” the 2020 Census.
“It’s pretty obvious to me, as the census director and the communication I’ve had with the Commerce Department so far in preparing for the 2020 Census which is now just two years away, that the Trump Administration intends to politicize this census,” Galvin said.
Census-watchers have been on high alert since the Department of Justice asked the Census Bureau in December to reinstate a question on citizenship in the 2020 Census. A citizenship question could serve to intimidate unauthorized immigrants, their families, or their communities, leading to lower counts that are used to determine everything from political representation to federal funds for hospitals and schools.
“An inaccurate census leads to underrepresentation and fewer dollars for many of our most vulnerable communities,” reads the letter from the U.S. Conference of Mayors Census Task Force.
The status of the 2020 Census was thrust into question in May, when John Thompson resigned his post as the director of the Census Bureau (on the same day that Trump fired former FBI Director James Comey). The Trump administration has not since named a replacement for Thompson, although Politico reported in November that the administration might appoint a political science professor named Thomas Brunell to be the bureau’s deputy director.
Appropriate leadership at the Census Bureau is one of three issues that mayors urged the Trump administration to address. By naming Brunell as deputy director—another vacancy at the bureau—the administration would be appointing an acting director in a way that would not require Senate confirmation. Critics have described this maneuver as a workaround, similar to a strategy that has provoked a leadership battle at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, especially since Brunell harbors extreme partisan views on redistricting and competitive elections (not to mention having no material experience in government or administration).
“The American people must have confidence that the Bureau’s leaders will uphold its core principles of protecting confidentiality, sharing expertise, and conducting its work openly and fairly, without regard to partisan interests, and be guided by a commitment to scientific objectivity and excellence and research-based innovation,” the letter reads—adding that inexperienced or partisan nominees for the director and deputy director positions would “erode already fragile public trust” in the 2020 count.
Funding is another area where the administration is diverging from precedent: As a 2017 report from the Center on Budget Policy and Priorities shows, underfunding for the 2020 Census is reaching crisis levels. On this point, the U.S. Conference of Mayors Census Task Force outlines several specific demands for increased funding, namely the Integrated Partnership and Communications operation as well as Area Census Offices. The letter asks Ross to increase the number of Partnership Specialists from 43 to 200 and Area Census Offices from 248 to 300, with appropriate funding for each.
Finally, the members of the mayoral Census Task Force—Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, and Mesa Mayor John Giles—ask Ross to do one more thing: Honor the Constitution.
“Since 1790, the decennial census has been the vehicle for this count and, to this day, Congress has rejected efforts to change the interpretation of this important tenet of the Constitution by basing apportionment on a subset of the population,” the letter reads.
While the Census Task Force roots its argument in Article One of the Constitution, it highlights a number of more concrete objections to introducing changes just two years before the 2020 Census. Demographic researchers spend years testing questionnaire formats and designs, the letter reads. Adding a possibly unconstitutional inquiry that breaks with 228 years of tradition would also violate best practices in political science, introducing new costs and logistical hurdles at a time when concerns are already mounting.
Ross has not yet responded to the Census Task Force, or to other critics wondering how the Trump administration plans to execute the 2020 Census without drastic and damaging undercounts. Ross probably has a lot on his mind—among them, the state of the dollar, the rise of robots, and his personal job security. But time is running out for someone to address the shaky foundation of the 2020 Census.