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'We're Running Out Of Time': Census Turns To Congress To Push Deadlines

A group of House Democrats introduced a bill Wednesday that would push back major deadlines for the 2020 census as requested by the U.S. Census Bureau because of the coronavirus pandemic.

While the bureau has collected responses from some 89 million households so far, primarily online, officials at the bureau say they will not be able to deliver to the president by the end of this year the latest state population numbers used to redistribute congressional seats and Electoral College votes among the states as required by federal law.

"We have passed the point where we could even meet the current legislative requirement of Dec. 31. We can't do that anymore," Tim Olson, the head of field operations for this year's national head count, said Tuesday during a webinar organized by the National Congress of American Indians. "We're hopeful Congress will take action."

Last month, bureau officials told members of the U.S. Congress they also need more time to prepare the detailed census data currently due to state redistricting officials by March 31, 2021.

Four-month deadline extensions were included in the latest coronavirus relief package the House passed earlier this month.

But with bipartisan talks with the Republican-led Senate and the Trump administration stalled, Rep. Jimmy Gomez, D-Calif., says he helped introduce the new House bill Wednesday to try to get clarity about the census timeline sooner.

Gomez tells NPR he's worried that negotiations over the next relief package could spill into late June or early July, and he has been "in conversations" with counterparts in the Senate to encourage the other side of Capitol Hill to introduce a similar bill.

"We're running out of time," Gomez says. "If we don't get our act together, the states are going to have some serious problems moving forward."

The National Conference of State Legislatures' executive director, Tim Storey, flagged the "conundrum" facing many states in a letter this week to Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham.

"Census delays present serious hurdles for states constrained by state constitutional and statutory requirements for districting and elections," Storey wrote.

For now, the Census Bureau says it's planning to keep counting for the 2020 census through Oct. 31, although it has yet to announce any new plans for going door to door to complete the count in some American Indian tribal territories that remain on lockdown, or for counting people experiencing homelessness.

This week, a group of Senate Democrats led by Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California asked Dillingham to provide by June 2 a detailed explanation of the bureau's next steps for counting the homeless population.

As of Tuesday, the national self-response rate was a sliver of a percentage point away from the bureau's pre-pandemic benchmark of 60.5%. Bureau officials were hoping to reach that rate by the end of April before sending door knockers out to visit unresponsive homes that had been asked to fill out forms themselves but hadn't done so yet.

The coronavirus has forced the bureau to delay the start of that door knocking until Aug. 11. This month, the bureau started sending out census workers again to some rural areas, as well as communities in Puerto Rico, that have been waiting for months to have paper forms left outside of their front doors.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.