Criticized over recent appointees, Census adds another hire

A briefcase of a census taker is seen as she knocks on the door of a residence Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020, in Winter Park, Fla. A half-million census takers head out en mass this week to knock on the doors of households that haven't yet responded to the 2020 census. (AP Photo/John Raoux) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

ORLANDO, Fla. – Amid calls for investigations into whether two recent hires for top positions at the U.S. Census Bureau were politically motivated, the nation's top statistical agency said Monday it was hiring a third new deputy director as the bureau enters the homestretch of its once-a-decade head count of every U.S. resident.

The Census Bureau said Benjamin Overholt was joining the agency as a deputy director for data. In that position, he will help ensure that the data products created from the 2020 census “are of the highest quality," the Census Bureau said in a statement.

Overholt previously was a lead statistician in the Office of Enterprise Data and Analytics at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and he worked in the voting section of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. He holds a doctorate in applied statistics and research methods from the University of Northern Colorado.

Overholt's hiring comes months after Nathaniel Cogley and Adam Korzeniewski were appointed to top positions at the Census Bureau. The Democratic-controlled House Committee on Oversight and Reform has asked Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to withdraw the appointments, saying they are part of the Trump administration’s efforts to politicize the agency.

Associations representing statisticians and demographers also criticized the appointments.

Critics have said other efforts at politicizing the Census Bureau include the Trump administration's failed attempt to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census questionnaire and an order President Donald Trump, a Republican, issued last month that attempts to exclude people in the country illegally from being counted during the process of redrawing congressional districts.

The Census Bureau also recently decided to end the 2020 count in late September instead of late October after bureau requests for deadline extensions stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Census consultant Terri Ann Lowenthal said she didn't know Overholt so she couldn't comment on his qualifications, but she said she was troubled by the number of political appointments the Trump administration has made at an agency that has been primarily led by career civil servants.

“There is no good reason to add so many high-level positions and fill them with political appointees, outside of a broader agency reorganization that doesn’t appear to be in the works," said Lowenthal, a former congressional staffer who specialized in census issues. “Coupled with clear political interference from the White House in the implementation of the census, public confidence in the integrity of the Census Bureau’s work and, just as damaging, the data it publishes, could suffer."

The Census Bureau's watchdog agency, the Office of Inspector General, has asked for information about the hiring of Cogley and Korzeniewski.

Meanwhile, the Office of Inspector General said last week that more than a dozen laptop computers used for an early phase of the 2020 census were lost, stolen or missing last year, and they may have contained personal information whose confidentiality is protected by federal law.

A management alert issued last week by the watchdog agency said the Census Bureau was unaware of the missing laptops from last year's address verification process, which preceded the start of the once-a-decade head count of every U.S. resident earlier this year, until the watchdog alerted them.

The number of missing laptops could be higher, and the bureau must do a better job of overseeing the equipment that currently is being used for the most labor intensive part of the 2020 census — when up to 500,000 door-knockers are heading to homes that haven't yet answered the census questionnaire.

Widespread door-knocking by census takers started last week and will continue through the end of September. The census takers are equipped with 585,000 smartphones and tablets to take down the answers of the respondents whose households they knock on. The 2020 census will help determine the distribution of $1.5 trillion in federal spending and how many congressional seats each state gets.

Eight Democratic U.S. senators on Monday asked the U.S. Government Accountability Office to examine how the 2020 census is being conducted compared to its original plan, and the performance of the 2010 census, in light of the recent decision to end the count a month earlier than planned.


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