The Supreme Court issued an order Tuesday that halts the 2020 census count in place, delivering a victory to the Trump administration, which is rushing to complete the enumeration and submit the final results to Congress this year.
Reacting late Tuesday, the Census Bureau said it would cut off data collection on Thursday, though up until then residents can respond by phone or internet, and can still mail in census forms.
Activists, meanwhile, announced a last-minute push to get holdouts to respond.
The high court’s decision also reverberated around the political realm, with Democrats complaining that it was a blow to democracy.
The justices, in an unsigned order, halted a lower court’s injunction that had directed the census to continue taking responses through the end of October, saying it needed the extra time because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Supreme Court said that ruling is on hold while the case winds its way through appeals courts.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented, saying the need to get an accurate count, even with the extra time, was more important than meeting the end-of-year deadline — a deadline she said the government has already conceded it will struggle to make.
As of this week, 99.9% of all households have been counted, with in-person visits over the last weeks accounting for about one-third of that count.
It’s that in-person activity that’s at stake in the court case.
Justice Sotomayor said every percentage point of uncounted households means hundreds of thousands of people left out of the final tally and potentially denying the states where they live resources that are allocated based on the census.
“The harms caused by rushing this year’s census count are irreparable,” she wrote.
Under President Trump’s direction, the Census Bureau is not only trying to complete the count but also to submit two numbers to Congress. One would be the overall total of residents, and the second would be that count minus any illegal immigrants who could be identified.
Mr. Trump envisions that second count being used to apportion seats in the House, and he wanted that count completed by the end of the year.
While a majority of households reply to the census online or by mail, some homes do not. Those require in-person visits to try to get the data.
That process is supposed to run through Sept. 30, giving the Census Bureau three months to tabulate and submit the final count to Congress by the end of the year.
But as the pandemic hit this year, the Census Bureau curtailed in-person visits, fearing spread of the virus.
The bureau initially said that would mean it would continue counting beyond the Sept. 30 deadline and would submit a final number to Congress next April.
The bureau then reversed itself and issued new guidance returning to a speedier schedule.
The bureau offered bonuses to the in-person enumerators to speed up their work and set a new Oct. 5 target for finishing.
Democrat-led states, civil rights advocates and other groups sued, demanding the bureau stick with its elongated schedule.
Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez blasted Tuesday’s intervention by the Supreme Court, calling it “a threat to our democracy.”
“The Trump administration’s goals are simple: to strip states of their fair share of resources and representation and to disempower immigrants and voters of color,” Mr. Perez said. “It’s long past time for Donald Trump and Republican leaders to stop using the census as a tool for political gain.”
Mr. Trump last year tried to shoehorn a question about citizenship onto the 2020 census form. The Supreme Court ruled that while he had the power to do so, he cut too many corners and didn’t offer a good enough justification for the late addition.