Counting Down to a Census Doomsday
A potential new appointment at the U.S. Census Bureau has census-watchers worried that the agency's core mission could be at risk as it enters into the home stretch for the big 2020 count.
On Tuesday, Politico reported that the Trump administration may appoint Thomas Brunell, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, to be the bureau's deputy director. Critics recoiled at the news, citing Brunell's 2008 book, Redistricting and Representation: Why Competitive Elections Are Bad for America, and his lack of experience as further evidence that the Trump administration means to sabotage the decennial count for partisan advantage.
Brunell's work is controversial: In a journal review, one of Brunell's peers described Redistricting and Representation as "provocative," noting that among political scientists who specialize in electoral geography, "Brunell is practically alone in forcefully advocating for less competition in redistricting plans." He has testified on behalf of numerous Republican efforts to gerrymander political districts. Yet Brunell's unorthodox ideas may be the least of the concerns that his prospective nomination raises.
"Bringing in two inexperienced people at the top of the Census Bureau-the yet-to-be-nominated director and the deputy director-to run the 2020 Census makes the conduct of that census even more risky than it currently is, and the current risk is quite high given the underfunding of the last several years," says Daniel Weinberg, former senior research scientist for the Census Bureau and a consultant for the Low Income Opportunity Advisory Board under President Ronald Reagan.
The top two leadership positions at the Census Bureau have been vacant since May, when former director John Thompson announced his resignation (on the same day that President Donald Trump fired then-FBI Director James Comey). The administration is taking the unusual tack of filling the deputy director position (vacant since January) before it names a director. In fact, that may be a tactical decision. Brunell's name was briefly floated to replace Thompson as director but quickly withdrawn, according to Robert Santos, chief methodologist for the Urban Institute and vice president for the American Statistical Association.
While the appointment of a new director requires Senate approval, the deputy director only needs to clear the Commerce Department-leaving open the prospect that the Trump administration could decline to name a director in a timely fashion.
"The deputy director should have full confidence of the director, and since the deputy director is an appointed position, you really would want the director in place if the deputy director slot is vacant," Santos says.
The appointment would make Brunell the de facto head of a multi-billion dollar agency, despite his lack of experience heading up any large executive bureaucracy. (According to The Federalist, this would be a feather in his cap.) Historically, the chief of operations for the Census Bureau has been a scientist with experience in statistical methodology and a background in management within the federal government. The danger of appointing an outsider with none of these qualifications, according to Santos, is that someone who "doesn't know what he doesn't know could make decisions that might seem logical but could cause great harm in the implementation of the Census."
Brunell's work related directly to the decennial census-which he would be responsible for implementing-has generated heat in the academic community. (He has not responded to a request for comment for this story.) In 2001, Brunell published a brief paper, under 450 words, for the American Political Science Association arguing that the Census Bureau should abandon its process for accounting for undercounted populations. That drew a sharp response from Margo Anderson of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Stephen Fienberg of Carnegie Mellon University, who concluded that "we find Brunell's arguments against census adjustment either distorted or confused," they wrote.
Experts already fear that the 2020 Census will undercount populations due to budgeting shortfalls. Even though dress rehearsals for the decennial census will soon be underway, funding for the Census Bureau has fallen far short of necessary levels. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, previous administrations have ramped up funding dramatically in the run-up to the count. Both the White House and Congress have proposed only a 2 percent bump for the Census Bureau in 2018.
"It's really easy and inexpensive to count the easy people. That's not the problem," Santos says. "It's harder to count the people that are harder to reach. Those are the most vulnerable populations."
Putting the Census Bureau in the hands of an inexperienced academic who favors gerrymandering would be a fast way to undermine public confidence in the Census. Even if the starkest fear may never come to pass-that a political appointee could deliberately undercount poor or minority populations that trend Democratic in order to favor districts that vote Republican-administrative incompetence or budgetary neglect may still do the job.
Underfunding and a leadership vacuum has already dampened the Census Bureau's partnership, outreach, and communications program, according to Santos. The agency's decisions over the next two years could have far-reaching implications-even beyond the apportion of seats for the U.S. House of Representatives. The work of the Census Bureau is never finished: Planning for 2030 will begin even before the 2020 count is completed.
"Almost anyone in a top leadership could make decisions that could negatively affect the outcome of the Census and it could be disadvantageous to the nation," Santos says. "We need everyone to be counted."
Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
"The Reapportionment That Did Not Happen: Let's Not Repeat That in 2020" By Kenneth Prewitt, The NiLP Report (August 6, 2017)