Prince George’s County and the NAACP sued the Trump administration on Wednesday over concerns that its plan for the 2020 census would lead to an undercount of African-American residents.
The preemptive lawsuit by Maryland’s second-largest county and the well-known civil rights organization comes as some members of Congress have raised concerns that cost-saving efforts will lead to less outreach in hard-to-count regions of the country.
“Sufficient staffing, funding, and preparation in advance of the census are essential to such a monumental undertaking,” the lawsuit reads. “The bureau has been operating on the cheap, without sufficient funding to address its many challenges.”
Prince George’s County had among the highest undercounts of any large jurisdiction in the nation during the last census, with officials estimating the count missed 2.3 percent of the population. Baltimore City had the second-highest undercount in Maryland, at just over 2 percent.
Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor, announced the lawsuit at an event in Washington.
“We must not be undercounted again like we have been over the past 30 years,” Baker said. “A vast majority of the residents of Prince George’s County are members of this nation’s historically disenfranchised populations.”
The issue raised in the lawsuit is separate from news this week that the Census Bureau intends to include a question about citizenship in 2020. That announcement led to an outcry from some groups — and a lawsuit from California — who say the question will cause an undercount among non-citizens.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said this week that the citizenship question would be included to “provide data that’s necessary for the Department of Justice to protect voter rights, specifically to help us comply with the Voting Rights Act.”
The decennial census is important for cities and counties because the estimates are plugged into formulas that decide how hundreds of billions of dollars are allocated. Because of that, population counts are often the subject of challenges and lawsuits after their release.
But in this case, the NAACP is bringing a lawsuit before the counting begins. The civil rights group has been arguing for months that the Census Bureau’s plan for 2020 will not adequately reach minorities.
Like other federal agencies, the Census Bureau is leaning more on digital interactions to reach the public. Agency officials believe more than half the population will respond to the 2020 census online. But that has raised questions from the NAACP and other groups about reaching populations that are not as digitally connected.
The 2010 census undercounted 2.1 percent of the African American population, the Census Bureau estimated.
Civil rights groups have also pointed to questions about funding for the agency. Congress included $2.8 billion for the Census Bureau in the $1.3 trillion spending measure President Donald J. Trump signed on Friday. But earlier funding shortfalls forced the bureau to abandon “dress rehearsal” tests last year.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has told lawmakers that the 2020 census will cost $15.6 billion.
The Commerce Department declined to comment on the record. A department official said the case is “without merit” and said that the agency “look[s] forward to prevailing in court and continuing to work with the Census Bureau to conduct a complete and accurate 2020 census.”