This editorial has been updated to reflect news developments.
No sooner had Trump administration officials announced that they had finally dropped their push to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census than they reversed course and said they would keep trying to find a way to include it. No matter that the Supreme Court ruling that compelled their retreat objected not to the administration’s quest to undermine the fairness and accuracy of the count, but to its failure to present, if not an honest, at least a non-preposterous rationale.
Late Wednesday, government lawyers were back in court telling a federal judge in Maryland that they would ask the Supreme Court to send the case to District Court with instructions to resolve the issue. Even as the administration continued to try to game the census, the count remains under serious threat from those who would corrupt this elemental tool of democracy. With some 330 million people needing to be tallied next year, the Census Bureau is looking to take the colossal — and colossally expensive — undertaking digital. This presents major technological challenges and opens the door to all manner of cybermeddling. Software glitches, hacking and disinformation campaigns are among the dangers of which experts have long been warning. Despite progress, the bureau remains under-resourced and underprepared.
The federal government’s Government Accountability Office put the 2020 census on its list of “high risk” projects in 2017, identifying hundreds of issues that needed to be addressed to ensure a secure, efficient head count. Some of the agreed-upon goals have been met, but others have hit snags, leaving the project on this year’s high-risk list. Among other basic challenges, the bureau remains short on qualified staffers to oversee the process. There were delays in developing the new systems, which then left less time “for system testing, integration testing, and security assessments.”
Insufficient funding has prompted the bureau to dial back planned tests in 2017, shrinking some and canceling others altogether. The audits that have been conducted have uncovered significant vulnerabilities, including a case of high-level access credentials getting lost that a report by the Commerce Department’s inspector general called “potentially catastrophic.” As of March, the G.A.O. reported, the bureau still had “over 500 corrective actions” pending, including nearly 250 “considered ‘high-risk’ or ‘very high-risk.’ ” Of those 250, 115 had been “delayed due to technical challenges or resource constraints.”
Raising the stakes, the fierce battle over the citizenship question has drawn exactly the wrong kind of attention. As the 2016 elections so vividly showed, the more politically divisive an issue, the more fertile the ground for conspiracy theories and disinformation campaigns. As The Times reported this week, “researchers say they are already beginning to see coordinated online efforts to undermine public trust in the census and to sow chaos and confusion.”
Even absent the citizenship question, the politicization of the census and the administration’s hard-line immigration policies have unnerved residents of immigrant-heavy communities, some of whom are wary of opening their door to any government worker. Experts fear that, if early snafus befall the census, the public’s faith and willingness to participate in the count will plummet.
Not that the president can be bothered with such mundane concerns. As with his lack of leadership on the critical issue of election security, he seems interested only in how to score partisan points around such topics. The morning after administration officials said the citizenship question had been dropped, Mr. Trump was on Twitter contradicting them. He called the reports “FAKE!” and insisted his team was “absolutely moving forward.”
This came as a particular surprise to the Department of Justice, which on Tuesday informed litigants challenging the citizenship question in New York that the matter would not be pursued.
Then on Wednesday, the Justice Department marched into court, saying they had been “instructed” by the president to seek a legal way to include the citizenship question in the printed census forms.
The Trump team took its shot at rigging the census and, for now at least, has fallen short, pending their latest legal shenanigans. Perhaps now officials could devote their energies to ensuring that this vital process isn’t undermined by incompetence or malicious interference.
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