Texts: US census manager told counters to use fake answers

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Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Amanda Colianni, a census field supervisor, poses for The Associated Press, Monday, Nov. 23, 2020, in Baltimore. Colianni said she believes 5,300 cases in neighborhoods she managed were closed prematurely and removed from the door-knocking effort after only one attempt by census takers to interview members of households in mid-to-late September. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

The texts from an Alabama census supervisor had an urgent tone. “THIS JUST IN ...," one of them began. It then laid out how census takers should fake data to mark households as having only one resident even if they had no idea how many people actually lived there.

The goal of the texts from October, obtained by The Associated Press, was to check off as many households as possible on the list of homes census takers were supposed to visit because residents never had filled out census questionnaires. The supervisor wanted the census takers to finalize cases — without interviewing households — as the Trump administration waged a legal battle to end the once-a-decade head count early.

The texts are the latest evidence suggesting census accuracy was sacrificed for speed as census takers and supervisors rushed to complete a head count last month. Critics contend the schedule was shortened by two weeks so the Trump administration could enforce a presidential order excluding people in the country illegally from the numbers used for apportionment of congressional districts.

The texted instructions said that if two failed attempts were made to interview members of the households, along with two unsuccessful tries to interview landlords or neighbors about the homes' residents, then the census takers should mark that a single person lived there.

“You are to clear the case indicating occupied by 1," said the text from the census supervisor in the small city of Dothan, Alabama.

The texts were shared with the AP by a census taker from Florida who traveled to Alabama among groups of enumerators dispatched to areas lagging behind in the count. The existence of the texts suggests that falsification of census data may be more widespread than previously known.

The census taker who provided the texts asked for anonymity because of privacy concerns and said she refused to follow the texted guidance because she felt doing so would falsify data. She declined to name the supervisor, who was identified only by her first name in screenshots of the texts seen by the AP.

The U.S. Census Bureau has denied any attempts to systemically falsify information during the 2020 census, which is vital to determining the allocation of congressional seats and federal spending. But the AP has chronicled similar instructions sent to census takers in other U.S. regions.