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Lawmakers frustrated over delay in Census redistricting data

FILE - This March 19, 2020, file photo, shows a 2020 census letter mailed to a U.S. resident. Alabama on Wednesday became the second state to challenge the U.S. Census Bureau's decision to delay by six months the release of data used for redrawing congressional and legislative districts, as it took aim at the accuracy of a privacy protection system that it alleged is holding up the process.(AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

Republican senators expressed frustration Tuesday that data used for redrawing congressional and legislative districts won’t be available until August at the earliest, but the U.S. Census Bureau’s acting director told them the schedule was driven by a goal of releasing complete and accurate numbers.

At a hearing of the Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee, Republican lawmakers told acting Census Bureau director Ron Jarmin that the delay was upending their states’ redistricting plans.

The statistical agency recently said the redistricting data would be ready in an older format by August and in a more user-friendly format by September, months after the redistricting deadlines for many states. By law, the redistricting data is due by March 31, but the bureau said it needed the extra time because of delays caused by the pandemic.

“I hope you understand the negative consequences here,” said U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican from Ohio, whose state sued the Census Bureau over the revised deadline. “This is really putting us back and causing tremendous problems.”

U.S. Sen. James Lankford, a Republican from Oklahoma, said the delay was upsetting redistricting plans states had already undertaken, “and that all has to be redone.” The state of Alabama also has sued the Census Bureau in an effort to force it to release the redistricting data early.

The bureau is currently in the data processing phase of the 2020 census. Apportionment numbers that will decide how many congressional seats and Electoral College votes each state gets are scheduled to be released next month. The census figures also determine how $1.5 trillion in federal funding is distributed each year.

Under questioning, Jarmin said prioritizing some states like Ohio over other states in getting the redistricting data would actually cause a bigger delay. He also said hiring more staff wouldn’t speed up the process since that would take staff experts away from processing the data so they could train the new hires.

“That sounds nonsensical to me,” Portman responded.

Besides the pandemic, the delay in the redistricting data was also caused by the previous administration’s desire to get the apportionment numbers finished by a Dec. 31 deadline mandated by law, the census chief said.

“We crashed the schedule,” Jarmin said. “That meant some of the work we would have started for the redistricting data was set aside for later. That has added some time.”

Critics say the previous administration aimed for the Dec. 31 deadline so that then-President Donald Trump would still be in office when the apportionment numbers were completed and his administration could carry out a directive to exclude from apportionment figures people in the country illegally. President Joe Biden rescinded that directive as one of his first acts as president.

Tuesday’s Senate hearing covered a wide range of topics, including questions from senators about political interference, cybersecurity and the budget for the 2020 census.

Under questioning, J. Christopher Mihm, an official at the watchdog Government Accountability Office, told senators that nonpartisan career staffers “were in the driver’s seat” when it came to fundamental decisions at the bureau — not political appointees named by the Trump administration. The four Trump political appointees left the bureau before Biden took office in January. But Mihm recommended that the roles of future political appointees be given more clarity.

The bureau reported no security breaches with the 2020 census data. Even though the bureau used software employed by hackers for a large-scale penetration of U.S. government agencies, no data was compromised, Jarmin said.

The acting Census Bureau director also said the cost of executing the 2020 census would be under its $15.6 billion budget.

The hearing was preceded by the release of a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office that provided a broad view of what worked and didn’t work during the data collection phase of the 2020 census that ended in mid-October.

The report said a new automated system designed to create efficient routes for census takers as they knocked on the doors of homes that hadn’t responded often sent them instead on journeys that made no sense. The system called “the optimizer” also distributed cases unevenly among workers, according to interviews with census supervisors and managers.

Bureau officials told the watchdog agency that the automated system worked effectively and increased productivity, though they said they could have done a better job of explaining it during training.

Census takers also had difficulty entering large apartment or condo buildings to interview households since many building managers were working remotely during the pandemic.

The report also said the bureau spent $98.4 million on financial rewards to census takers for working additional hours or for traveling to other locations where the door-knocking was lagging.