Before ordering on Monday that the 2020 census conclude more than three weeks ahead of schedule, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross asked Census Bureau officials if the earlier date would effectively allow them to produce a final set of numbers during President Donald Trump’s current term in office.
Ross wrote in an email to several senior Census Bureau officials that he appreciated their “excellent briefing this afternoon,” where they informed him that ending the census on October 5 would mean as many as 10 states would not reach the standard for a complete count.
But instead of asking about the consequences of an incomplete count, Ross asked about the consequences of allowing counting to continue.
The email was released late Tuesday as part of a lawsuit over the Trump administration’s efforts to end the census ahead of schedule.
The exchange comes as the National Urban League and other groups suing Ross have accused him of trying to end the census early so that the numbers will be produced during Trump’s term. They say that could allow the administration to exclude undocumented immigrants from the count used to apportion seats in Congress – something an administration under Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden might not do if he won the election and the numbers were instead finalized under his watch.
Government attorneys have dismissed that claim as outside of the scope of this scheduling dispute.
“As I prepare to make the decision, I would like to make sure that I understood correctly that your team’s opinion is that if we stay in the field beyond October 5, we would not be able to meet the statutory deadline of December 31,” Ross wrote.
Ron Jarmin, the top-ranking career official at the Census Bureau, responded that concluding the count by October 5 would allow the December 31 date to be met.
The officials had presented the prediction that ending 2020 census counting early risks an incomplete tally of as many as 10 states at a Monday afternoon meeting, according to internal documents the Commerce Department and Census Bureau made public on Tuesday.
The states that may not reach completion are Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, New Mexico, North Carolina and South Carolina.
Bringing all 50 states to the Census Bureau’s goal of counting 99% of households could take until October 11, bureau officials told Ross.
“Even for states over 99% completion rates, there will be sub-state areas that are substantially below 99%, particular Tribal Areas due to COVID-19 restrictions,” the presentation said.
They also told Ross that ending the nationwide count on October 5 was the last possible hope to crunch the numbers by the end of this year, which Ross had asked them to do.
Within a few hours of that presentation, Ross settled on the October 5 date, the internal documents show.
Uncertainty about how much time is left to count the nation’s population and knock on the doors of households that have not yet responded has injected an unprecedented level of chaos into the final weeks of counting.
Federal law set the December 31 deadline to produce the count used to divide up seats in Congress, but Census Bureau officials have for months said that date is impossible to reach while producing an accurate count of the nation’s population.
They and the Trump administration had asked Congress for an extension because of the coronavirus pandemic that would include accepting responses through October 31.
The administration then backed off that request around the same time that President Donald Trump announced in late July that he would seek to exclude undocumented immigrants from the final figures. The Census Bureau official overseeing field workers wrote at the time that “any thinking person who would believe we can deliver apportionment by 12/31 has either a mental deficiency or a political motivation.”
In early August, Ross decided the count would be considered finished at the end of September. A federal court blocked that end date from taking effect, but did not specifically reinstate the October 31 deadline.
The federal judge overseeing the proceedings has contemplated declaring the December 31 date unconstitutional.
This story and headline have been updated with new developments on Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ decision.
CNN’s Caroline Kelly contributed to this report.