The Commerce Department's internal watchdog has determined that the order to cut short the 2020 census did not come from the Census Bureau and even the bureau's director doesn't know who ultimately made the call.
The department's inspector general's office doesn't say where the order came from but suggests the question of whether there was political interference is being investigated.
"The schedule change was not the Bureau’s decision, nor was it the first time the 2020 Census schedule had been changed. Senior officials at the Bureau, including the Director, did not know who ultimately made the decision to accelerate the Census schedule," it states.
The preliminary report, meant to give an early warning, said the decision to accelerate the deadline for data collection increases the risks of an incomplete or inaccurate census.
So far, the 2020 census has counted 95.4% of households in the U.S. either from self-submitted responses or field data collection, according to the bureau's website.
But in some states, including Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Montana, that percentage is under 90%.
The once-in-a-decade count is closely watched because it will determine major political and economic fallout for the next 10 years.
The census determines how many seats states get in the House of Representatives, known as the reapportionment process, and states including New York and California are at risk of losing seats if there's an undercount. It's also used to redraw district maps, which happens once every 10 years and has a huge influence on who is elected, how equal representation is in each district and what power each district yields.
If people are undercounted, for example, more people might be packed into a district that has the same number of representatives as a district next door that has many fewer people, dashing hopes of each person's vote wielding the same power.
What's more, the census is used to allocate trillions of dollars of federal funding that keep schools, health and public safety programs afloat in communities across the country.
Ending the count earlier than expected, some experts say, makes it more likely that those requiring the most effort to reach -- immigrants or people live in rural areas, for example -- will be left uncounted, underfunded and underrepresented in years to come, potentially for political gain.
"Clearly, there are political motivations to change the timeline and particularly to close off the census and the count early, because what that's gonna do is bias the final count. It's going to lead to a substantial undercounting of low income people, and people of color, and the political implication to that is very clear: by excluding them from the count you also bias the reapportionment process and the redistricting process," said Paul Ong, director of UCLA's Center for Neighborhood Knowledge and a former Census Bureau adviser.
"There are real political motivations to essentially bias the final count because certain parties will gain from it at the expense of people they consider not worthy of being included," Ong said. "And so, again, I'm not surprised if this is true, because politicians play politics, and certainly one could play politics with the census to skew and bias the outcomes in their favor."
The alert from the watchdog said the inspector general's office is monitoring "pressing and emerging issues" related to the Census.
In early August, the Census Bureau announced that it would stop collecting responses to the Census on Sept. 30, a month earlier than expected, in order to finish collecting and analyzing data that must be reported to Congress by the legally required deadline of Dec. 31.
The announcement raised alarms from lawmakers and advocates who say the Bureau needed more time to conduct the count, especially in areas hit hardest by cases of COVID-19.
In an inquiry launched into how and why the announcement was made, the inspector general said Census Bureau officials said they did not make the decision to move up the timeline and were concerned it would make it harder to get an accurate count.
"The decision to accelerate the 2020 Census schedule was not made by the Bureau. Senior career officials at the Bureau perceived that this decision resulted from the Administration no longer supporting the schedule extension, but ultimately they lacked visibility into this decision process," a report signed by Inspector General Peggy Gustafson said.
The IG's alert was first reported by NPR.
Published last Friday, the alert said that before the accelerated timeline was announced, Census Bureau officials thought the Trump administration would support a push from Congress to extend the deadline to give more time to collect and analyze the data.
Officials interviewed by the inspector general said they're concerned about additional challenges to collecting responses in areas impacted by hurricanes and wildfires this summer.
According to the inspector general, Census Bureau officials were under the impression the Trump administration would support congressional efforts to extend census deadlines to give them more time to conduct operations during the coronavirus pandemic.
But in late July, they were asked to brief Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on how they could meet the Dec. 31 deadline. After Ross reacted favorably to that presentation, a release was posted announcing the accelerated timeline.
One senior Census Bureau official told the IG's office the presidential memorandum directing the department to take steps to exclude undocumented immigrants from census calculations that determine congressional representation influenced the administration's decision not to support extending the deadlines.
The Democrat who chairs the House Oversight Committee, Carolyn Maloney, called the IG alert the "latest red flag" that the changed timeline will degrade the census results.
“This should not be a partisan issue. If the Senate fails to extend the deadline, the 2020 Census will undercount people in red states and blue states—and these communities will lose hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding they are due for healthcare, job training, education, and other programs over the next decade," she said in a statement.
Oversight Committee reports have found that as much as a 1% undercount in the census could mean states lose tens of millions or even hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds.
For already underfunded communities desperate to retain what little federal money they get, it can even be a "matter of life or death," said Stephen Roe Lewis, governor of a tribe in Arizona called the Gila River Community. Lewis testified before Congress last week.
“It is not an exaggeration to say an accurate census can be a matter of life or death in tribal communities because the programs impacted by census count affects delivery of health care, public safety, our youth and elder programs, housing, violence against women grants and other programs that sustain our tribal communities,” Lewis told Congress. “And we have a reason to be concerned that an accurate count will not occur if the Census Bureau ends field operations at the end of this month.”