As a national legal battle over the 2020 census continues, the deadline for the once-in-a-decade count changed again this week — another abrupt twist for local officials trying to make sure Marylanders are counted.
U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced Monday that the census will end Oct. 5. The announcement came days after a federal judge in California blocked the Trump administration from ending the count Sept. 30. Civil rights groups have been pushing for a longer timeline, saying the nation is at risk of inaccurate data and a massive undercount of communities of color.
Census data is used to determine billions in federal funding and each state’s allotment of U.S. Representatives.
In an email Monday night to local heads of the Complete Count Committees — volunteer committees helping to coordinate the state’s census efforts — the Maryland Department of Planning said there are still questions, including whether the timeline could change again.
“We had hoped to be able to answer these questions for you today but too many moving parts still remain outstanding,” wrote Kristin Fleckenstein, the planning department’s public affairs director, in the email.
She added that the department “will continue doing what we can to ensure that we reach as many people as possible.”
A meeting with the state’s Complete Count Committee and local chairs is scheduled for Thursday.
According to census data, 99% of Maryland’s population has been counted, but there’s not a clear picture of how that breaks down at the local level — and participation in the census has varied significantly by county.
The U.S. Census Bureau has released self-response rates by county, but not data on how many people have been counted by a census taker visiting their homes.
Overall, six counties and Baltimore have lower self-response rates than they did in 2010, including Baltimore County.
In Baltimore, about 56% of residents have self-responded, compared to about 59% in 2010.
In the surrounding counties, the 2020 self-response rates range from 73% in Baltimore County to 81% in Carroll County.
The census already had been upended this year by the coronavirus pandemic, which hampered outreach efforts.
In response to the pandemic, federal officials in April extended the deadline for counting to Oct. 31. But then in August, they abruptly announced that counting operations would instead end Sept. 30.
A coalition of local governments and civil rights groups, including the National Urban League, sued the government over the plan to shorten the timeline.
Harry Freeman, who leads the Anne Arundel County Complete Count Committee, said the federal government’s shifting timeline has made everything more complicated for people at the local level.
“We made major adjustments to get everything done by September 30," after the Trump administration changed the deadline in August, he said.
The latest change to Oct. 5 “is another move that we have to adjust to," Freeman said. "And frankly it’s getting a little absurd at this point.”
Elected officials are continuing to urge residents to participate.
State Del. Stephanie Smith of Baltimore said she’s been emphasizing to people that being counted in the census determines political representation and funding for programs for years to come.
“There’s so much at stake here and I think that’s what we’ve really been leaning into,” said Smith, a Democrat. "Now more than ever, people don’t need abstract reasons, they need the most clear reasons.”