Lawsuit says census takers were pressured to falsify data

FILE - This Sunday, April 5, 2020, file photo shows an envelope containing a 2020 census letter mailed to a U.S. resident in Detroit. On Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court stopped the once-a-decade head count of every U.S. resident from continuing through the end of October. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File)
FILE - This Sunday, April 5, 2020, file photo shows an envelope containing a 2020 census letter mailed to a U.S. resident in Detroit. On Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court stopped the once-a-decade head count of every U.S. resident from continuing through the end of October. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

The U.S. Census Bureau was able to claim it had reached 99.9% of households when the 2020 census ended two weeks ago because census takers were pressured to falsify data as the statistical agency cut corners and slashed standards, according to an amended lawsuit from advocacy groups and local governments.

In Baltimore, Southern California and the states of Massachusetts, North Carolina and Texas, some households were marked as completed after only one attempt to reach residents living there, according to the revised lawsuit filed by the National Urban League; the city of San Jose, California; and others.

Elsewhere, census takers were pressured by supervisors to close cases as quickly as possible, and they did this by guessing the number of people living in a household, claiming an address was too dangerous to visit or falsely saying residents of a household had refused to answer questions during door-knocking, said the lawsuit filed in federal court in San Jose.

“Instructions such as those identified above suggested to enumerators that they should falsify data to close cases quickly,” the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit argues the disregard for accuracy was done to end the count early so that census numbers could be processed while President Donald Trump was still in the White House, regardless of who wins the presidential race. That would allow the Trump administration to enforce a presidential order seeking to exclude people living in the U.S. illegally when congressional seats are divvied up among the states.

According to the lawsuit, the Census Bureau also relied heavily on methods other than directly interviewing households during its door-knocking phase in order to achieve its high completion rate. Those less accurate methods relied on administrative records like IRS returns, interviewing neighbors or landlords and just getting a head count rather than getting details about residents' race, sex, age, Hispanic origin and relationship to each other, the lawsuit said.

In the race to finish field operations for the 2020 census, “Defendants cut many corners and made decisions that do not bear a reasonable relationship to the accomplishment of an actual enumeration," the amended complaint said. “Such non-direct enumeration methods are less accurate and have a profound effect on immigrants and minorities — the hard-to-count populations.”

The revised lawsuit was filed late Tuesday, two weeks after the Supreme Court sided with the Trump administration and suspended an order from a district judge allowing the head count to continue through the end of the month. The coalition of local governments and advocacy groups had sued the Trump administration to keep the count from ending a month early and to extend the deadline for turning in apportionment numbers from Dec. 31 to the end of April 2021.