Facing Census delay, group withdraws request for records

Jul 27, 2021, 7:24 PM | Updated: Jul 28, 2021, 4:25 pm
FILE - College students begin moving in for the fall semester at N.C. State University in Raleigh, ...

FILE - College students begin moving in for the fall semester at N.C. State University in Raleigh, N.C., Friday, July 31, 2020. By the end of the U.S. head count last year, the Census Bureau lacked data for almost a fifth of the nation's occupied college dorms, nursing homes and prisons, requiring the statistical agency to make eleventh-hour calls to facilities in an effort to collect resident information or use a last-resort statistical technique to fill in the gaps. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome, file)

(AP Photo/Gerry Broome, file)

A Republican advocacy group on Wednesday withdrew its request for a court order seeking the immediate release of Census Bureau records after the agency’s chief scientist warned their disclosure could push back the already delayed release of redistricting data used for drawing congressional and legislative districts.

Fair Lines America Foundation withdrew its request for a preliminary injunction in a public records lawsuit against the statistical agency. Earlier this week, Census Bureau Chief Scientist John Abowd had said in a court declaration that the records’ disclosure could cause an additional delay of up to six months in the redistricting data’s release.

The redistricting data is set to be made public by Aug. 16 following a five-month delay from its original deadline due to the pandemic. The delay sent states scrambling to revise redistricting deadlines, and two states, Ohio and Alabama, sued the Census Bureau in an unsuccessful effort to get it to release the data before August.

Fair Lines sued the Census Bureau in a public records lawsuit for information about how the census count was conducted on people living in dormitories, prisons, nursing homes and group homes. Those facilities are called “group quarters” by the bureau. Fair Lines says it’s concerned about the accuracy of the group quarters count and wants to make sure anomalies didn’t affect the state population figures used for divvying up congressional seats among the states.

The withdrawal is only being made on the preliminary injunction motion, not the public records lawsuit.

Group facilities were among the most difficult places to count people during the 2020 census because the pandemic forced colleges to shutter dorms and send students home. Also, nursing homes and other facilities restricted access in an effort to protect vulnerable residents from the virus.

Abowd said that if the Census Bureau is required to release additional records as part of the Fair Lines lawsuit it will need as much as six months to recalibrate a new statistical tool meant to protect people’s privacy so that they can’t be identified through the data.

The privacy method known as “differential privacy” adds calibrated error to the data, most noticeably at small geographic levels such as neighborhood blocks, in order to prevent people being identified by high-powered computers through matches with third-party data such as voting records or credit card data.

In a statement, Fair Lines called Abowd’s declaration “laughably self-serving.”

“This Census Bureau has been plagued with embarrassing problems for the last many months, in large part due to Abowd’s push to apply ‘differential privacy’ over the objections of many outside and inside the Bureau,” the statement said. “All we are seeking is transparency in how the count was determined – which reveals no privacy issues whatsoever.”

Because of the privacy method, data at the neighborhood block-level may look “fuzzy,” with weird situations such as blocks showing children living with no adults or the number of people not matching the number of housing units in a block, acting Census Bureau director Ron Jarmin said Wednesday in a blog post.

Jarmin said that blocks should be added together to produce accurate results.

“Though unusual, situations like these in the data help confirm that confidentiality is being protected,” Jarmin said.

___

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Facing Census delay, group withdraws request for records