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GOP-linked group sues Census Bureau over college counts

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The nonprofit wing of the top Republican group dedicated to fighting the war over political district lines is filing a lawsuit aimed at forcing the U.S. Census Bureau to explain how it counted people in group settings like college campuses during the coronavirus pandemic.

Fair Lines America Foundation, a 501(c)(3) organization affiliated with the National Republican Redistricting Trust, will file suit Tuesday in federal court in Washington seeking the release of records relating to the bureau’s efforts to count people in congregate settings. Those settings include prisons, nursing homes and college campuses. 

The coronavirus pandemic sent millions of college students home just weeks before the April 1 census day last year, but some of those group settings may have reported their populations to the bureau earlier. That raises the specter of a potential double-count, if students or nursing home residents were counted both at their congregate settings and at homes where they moved to ride out the lockdowns. 

“We’re trying to figure out with these group quarters how they managed this,” said Adam Kincaid, executive director of both the NRRT and the Fair Lines America Foundation. “What we’re trying to get to is understanding the scale of the problem they dealt with.” 

Past litigation has allowed the bureau to use a statistical technique known as “imputation” to count those who did not respond to the decennial census. A 2002 Supreme Court decision, Utah v. Evans, gave the bureau permission to count residents in an unresponsive house based on the number of residents in nearby dwellings, a practice known as “hot-deck imputation.”

In a majority opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote that the practice did not violate the Constitution’s requirement that the census actually count every person.

For the first time this year, the Census Bureau used the imputation process for group quarters too. In a blog post last month, Pat Cantwell, chief of the bureau’s Decennial Statistical Studies Division, said they adopted the practice to arrive at a more accurate count. 

“When we enumerated them in midsummer, some group quarters said they were vacant but they were actually occupied on April 1. If not corrected, such cases could lead to an undercount. If the corrections were not properly coordinated with our procedures to remove duplicated people, they could contribute to an overcount,” Cantwell wrote.  

The bureau’s procedure involved comparing group quarters not to nearby homes, but to similar group quarters already in the data set.  

That explanation wasn’t sufficient for the Fair Lines Foundation. 

“The American public deserves to know how the U.S. Census Bureau collected group quarters population data during the 2020 Census in light of the Census Bureau’s announcements that it experienced difficulties and had a number of ‘anomalies’ regarding the gathering and counting of group quarters populations due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Kincaid said. “We want to understand the impact of group residential facilities generally on the overall population tabulations of various states and on the Bureau’s use of group quarter imputation.”

The Census Bureau did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

In an interview, Kincaid said he did not expect the litigation to have an impact on the reapportionment of U.S. House seats, announced by the bureau last month, or on the 2022 midterm elections, which will take place under the new lines drawn by legislators and commissions in the 43 states that send more than one member to Congress. 

But Jason Torchinsky, the foundation’s chief counsel, said the potential for an overcount or an undercount could have ramifications later in the decade, in states where college towns see tens of thousands of students regularly moving in and out during the fall and spring. 

“We have no idea if this affected 10,000 kids across the country or if this affected 1.5 million kids across the country, because the bureau has not been transparent about what they’re doing,” Torchinsky said. “It could have a big impact on registration in state legislatures, how congressional districts are formed.”

The lawsuit is the latest, but far from the last, in what is likely to be a decade of legal maneuvering between Democrats and Republicans over the census and its far-ranging fallout. Democrats have already filed suit to try to force courts to intervene in the redistricting process in Pennsylvania, Louisiana and Minnesota, three states where the two parties split control of the redistricting process.

Tags Census Redistricting Stephen Breyer
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