Apparent White House pick to lead census sparks concern about partisanship

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(This article has been updated)

This week the Population Association of America and the Association of Population Research Centers, whose members include over 3,000 scientists and over 40 federally-funded organizations, sounded an alarm bell about one of their most sacred cows: the United States Census Bureau.

Reports had surfaced saying the White House planned to install as the bureau’s deputy director Thomas Brunell, a political science professor with scant managerial experience who is best known for his testimony as an expert witness on behalf of Republican redistricting plans and a book that argues against competitive electoral districts.

News of the appointment, which sources close to the bureau say is imminent, sparked handwringing among statisticians, former bureau directors, and civil rights leaders.

The appointment would “undermine the credibility” of the traditionally nonpartisan bureau, the president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights said in a statement. Brunell “appears to lack the necessary management and statistical agency experience, and may be viewed by many to have a very political perspective,” the president of the American Statistical Association wrote.

Neither Brunell, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, nor the Census Bureau responded to requests for comment.

Brunell earned his degrees at the University of California, Irvine in the 1990s and has taught at the University of Texas in Dallas since 2005, focusing on elections and party politics. He is considered by those with knowledge of the field to be a respected academic who holds un­or­tho­dox views.

These are laid out in his 2008 book: “Redistricting and Representation: Why Competitive Elections are Bad for America.” In it, Brunell argues that a politically homogenous district will be more likely to agree on a candidate and elect him or her with higher margins, resulting in a more satisfied electorate than in more diverse districts.

He advocates redrawing districts to pack them with like-minded voters, an approach that critics worry could lead him to skew the upcoming 2020 Census in ways that would favor Republicans.

“It’s not implausible that he would be given this job because of his redistricting strengths and inclinations,” said Kenneth Prewitt, a former director of the bureau who is now a professor of public affairs at Columbia University. “This is a game where a couple of seats can make the difference in the electoral college…so if you want to politicize it, this would be a clever strategy.”

The constitutionally-mandated count of all people living in the United States and its territories determines the distribution of congressional seats and affects the shape of districts and the flow of over $675 billion a year in federal funding. The decennial survey is also crucial for businesses, civic organizations and others whose work relies on demographic data.

[Census watchers warn of a crisis if funding for 2020 count is not increased]

Robert Boatright, a political science professor at Clark University familiar with Brunell and his work, cautioned against judging his ability to lead the Census Bureau solely by looking at his views on redistricting.

“He’s taken this kind of contrarian perspective – that overwhelmingly partisan districts can be a good thing…versus the conventional wisdom that you want to draw districts that are competititve,” Boatright said, adding that that approach is not partisan in and of itself and is not related to the bureau’s mandate.

“The Census Bureau does not actually redraw districts,” he said. “It’s important to separate those things out.”

Initial reports about Brunell among census watchers said the White House was considering him as director, a position that has been unfilled since May. That position requires Senate confirmation. Currently, an acting deputy director and director are in place.

The deputy director position, traditionally filled by a career bureaucrat, would not need confirmation, but in order for the White House to fill it, it would need to be reclassified as a politically appointed position. Sources close to the bureau have said the appointment is imminent, pending the paperwork required to reclassify the position.

Besides fears of partisanship, critics contend that Brunell, who has never managed a large agency or organization, is not a good fit for a position often described as the bureau’s “chief operating officer.” As such, he could influence decisions such as how many field offices are opened, how many enumerators are sent out, and how much is spent on advertising in hard-to-reach communities.

“It requires somebody who is a really good manager and who has been a really good manager within the federal government,” said John Thompson, who resigned as the bureau’s acting director in May amid controversy over its funding. “I don’t see how you could expect someone with an academic background only to occupy that position as COO; I think that would be a real stretch.”

The insecurity in the bureau comes amid partisan wrangling over how congressional districts are drawn, and two and a half years before the launch of the 2020 Census, which has been beset by funding deficits.

Traditionally by this point in the ten-year cycle, money for it is significantly ramped up. This cycle, however, the funding has remained relatively flat, leading to dire warnings that the count could be compromised. To bridge the gap, Ross in October requested an additional $3.3 billion over the $12.3 billion the Census Bureau had previously projected it would need for the count’s 10-year life cycle.

[Why the Commerce Secretary believes the 2020 Census needs more money]

When making the request Ross, who took office in February, said the Obama administration had given “overly optimistic assessments” of how much the count would cost. But he also said a directive from Congress that the 2020 count should not cost more than the $12.3 billion 2010 count had exacerbated the problem.

Inflation and a larger population meant that conducting a count identical to 2010 would have cost $5 billion more in 2020. The use of new technology, including online responses, mapping software and public data would reduce the number of workers knocking on doors and keep the 2020 cost to around the same as the 2010 cost, the bureau said.

But Congress declined to fully fund even these lower levels, allocating about 10 percent less than the bureau has requested between 2012 and 2017.

Historically, the people most likely to be undercounted in the census — the poor, the transient, minorities and immigrants – are also more likely to support Democratic politicians. Advertising and outreach to these groups are one area of the budget that some fear could be shortchanged if the count is not adequately funded.

In October the NAACP filed a lawsuit alleging that the Commerce Department is unlawfully withholding information about its plans for the 2020 Census, especially regarding how it reach out to minority and low-income communities.

At the same time, amid heightened fears about deportation of undocumented immigrants and bans on people from some countries entering the United States, these traditionally undercounted populations may be more reluctant than ever to share information with the government. Some Republicans have called for adding a question about citizenship and immigration status to the census, a move that would likely depress the response rate among immigrant households.

They are also concerned that new digital technology for responding and counting, which was designed to save costs, has so far not been adequately tested. The bureau has already said the expected response rate is lower for this count than for previous ones.

The degree to which a deputy director is able to influence the accuracy of the count depends on what his duties are, Thompson said. Regardless, “with a political appointee in there it’s going to be harder to gain the confidence” of hard-to-reach groups, he said.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.), the ranking Democrat on the House oversight committee, called the reports of Brunell’s appointment “alarming, if true.”

“Installing a Republican redistricting expert into what has traditionally been a non-political position at the Census Bureau reeks of an attempt to manipulate the census for political gain,” he said in a tweet.

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