Census officials face challenge of tallying population in half the time they expected

A person holds census information at an event where U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) spoke at a Census Town Hall at the Louis Armstrong Middle School in Queens, New York City, U.S., February 22, 2020. By Gregory Wallace, CNN

(CNN) -- The Census Bureau is relying on faster technology working exactly as planned to produce a set of final 2020 Census figures in about half the time it usually takes.

Officials laid out their plans Wednesday to crunch the tally of some 330 million people, a process that has been dramatically condensed by order of the Trump administration and inaction by Congress to extend a December 31 deadline. The behind-the-scenes processing work got underway last week after an early end to accepting online responses and knocking on doors.

"Does this have risk? Yes, it probably has some risk," the career official overseeing the 2020 census, Al Fontenot, told reporters on Wednesday.

The accelerated effort, he said, "assumes that a reasonably smooth series of processing events will occur. If they are not reasonably smooth, that will require us to take additional time."

Fontenot also suggested the tally may not be completed by the December 31 deadline to submit the numbers to the President that will be used to determine how many representatives each state gets in Congress. He said the bureau is aiming for completion by "the first or second week of January."

"We said we were working to come as close as possible to the December 31 deadline," Fontenot said. "That provides us with the flexibility if we encounter unexpected challenges to deal with them and handle them before we actually present the documents."

Fontenot and other Census Bureau officials have previously said publicly that meeting the December 31 would be impossible due to delays caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

"We are past the window of being able get those counts by those dates at this point," Fontenot told reporters this summer. Another official on the briefing call, field operations chief Tim Olson, wrote in an internal email reviewed by CNN that completing processing by December 31 is "ludicrous" and that anyone insisting on that date had "either a mental deficiency or a political motivation."

But submitting the numbers to Trump during the President's term may allow the administration time to remove undocumented immigrants from the tally, which in July he asked officials to do.

Fontenot said he was not overseeing the presidentially directed effort to assemble data on undocumented immigrants and determine if it is specific enough to remove people from the count. But he said the official population could be provided to the President "separately from any documents related to the presidential" directive.

The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments next month over whether undocumented immigrants can be excluded from the tally. A federal trial court in New York had blocked officials from carrying out that order.

In the meantime, census officials say they are banking on faster technology and a relentless work schedule to complete the count in the abbreviated time.

"Technology has advanced significantly over the last 10 years," Fontenot said. "We also optimized staff and computing resources to be operational -- computing resources 24/7 and staff seven days a week, including weekends and holidays."

The streamlining, he noted, could become problematic when the bureau faces its next deadline just three months later, when it is expected to produce detailed tallies of exactly where in the nation everyone lives. That data is used by the states to draw congressional districts.

"At this point in time, we cannot say for certain if we would require an additional extension of the redistricting data and we are constantly evaluating that," Fontenot said. "But first, we're trying to ensure that we get the apportionment data done promptly and on time."

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