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What's Next For The Census After Supreme Court Ruling


The Trump administration faced another setback this week, this time at the U.S. Supreme Court. A majority of the court ruled to keep a citizenship question off the 2020 census for now. But the justices did leave open a window for the administration to try to make another case for that question. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang covers all things census related and joins us now to explain what this all means for next year's head count. Hi, Hansi.


MCCAMMON: So remind us what the Supreme Court's ruling said about the citizenship question.

WANG: This ruling by the Supreme Court leaves this question blocked for now, this question, is this person a citizen of the United States? A majority of the justices found the reasoning the Trump administration put forth for adding this question - to better enforce part of the Voting Rights Act - you know, the justices wrote it, quote, "seems to have been contrived." Chief Justice John Roberts wrote this opinion. He also used distraction as a way to describe this reasoning. And this is - follows with three other federal judges around the country who've said this was a sham justification, doesn't seem to match up with actual needs of the Voting Rights Act.

And, you know, it's interesting. President Trump, he also tweeted this week hours after the Supreme Court put out their ruling. And he said he is looking into delaying the census. And it's important to point out that the Constitution officially calls for a once-a-decade head count, and federal law sets census day as April 1. And there are strict deadlines for the Census Bureau to deliver the population counts by the end of 2020. And those numbers determine how we redistribute seats in Congress in the beginning of 2021. So there are very strict deadlines here, but I'm still watching to see if there would be a delay.

MCCAMMON: And a lot at stake and, of course, quite a rebuke there for the Trump administration from the majority. But Trump is pushing back. The administration hasn't confirmed, though, whether or not it will try again for a citizenship question. How hard would that be, and how would it affect the census?

WANG: There is a printing deadline coming up on Monday. The Census Bureau says 1.5 billion paper forms, letters and mailings have to start - the printing of that has to start by Monday. And it's not clear if it will start. Census Bureau officials have also said that deadline could be pushed back to October 31, but it would require additional resources and exceptional effort, Census Bureau officials said. So it's really unclear what's going to happen now. And this is really important cause paper is going to be super important for households that don't have Internet access, can't do the census online. And also this uncertainty would hurt the training that has to happen for the census workers. They don't know how to necessarily talk about the census until this form is finalized. So I'm watching to see on Monday what the Trump administration tells a federal judge in Maryland who's waiting to hear whether or not one of the lawsuits should go forth.

MCCAMMON: And, Hansi, there's been so much debate over the citizenship question. Even if it stays off the 2020 census, could all of this affect the head count anyway?

WANG: You know, this is the fear of a lot of community groups that are planning to do outreach for the 2020 census. They're concerned that all this focus on a citizenship question has really heightened the fears of participating in the census, especially amongst immigrant communities, communities of color. There are worries that this question is really a tool to help the administration find undocumented immigrants for deportation or it could be used in some way against them, even though federal law says that census responses identifying individuals cannot be released to other federal agencies, to the public, until 72 years after this information is collected. But the question here is whether or not the public will trust the administration to uphold that law.

MCCAMMON: NPR's Hansi Lo Wang covers the 2020 census. Hansi, thanks.

WANG: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.