FARGO — A federal lawsuit that contends inadequate funding and staffing at the U.S. Census Bureau will result in an undercount of racial and ethnic minorities in 2020 mentions a canceled census field test in North Dakota in 2017 that was intended to help the bureau accurately count Native American populations.
The federal lawsuit filed last March by the NAACP and joined by Prince George's County, Maryland — a predominately black county in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. — claims poor planning of the first digital census will worsen undercounts and leave the census vulnerable to cyber attacks.
To bolster its claims, the suit cites canceled field tests that had been planned for North Dakota, South Dakota, Puerto Rico and Washington state.
"The Bureau has been operating on the cheap, without sufficient funding to address its many challenges," the lawsuit said.
The government argues concerns about undercounts and the potential loss of federal funding and legislative seats are "future harms" that can't be known until the 2020 census has concluded.
Joseph Cicha, a census specialist with the North Dakota Department of Commerce, said a field test that was to be held on the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota in 2017 was canceled due to funding issues.
He provided a link to a U.S. Census Bureau news release from 2016 that described the field tests planned for "American Indian areas," including the Standing Rock Reservation.
"The 2017 Census Test will allow the Census Bureau to test the feasibility of collecting tribal enrollment information," the release said, adding: "It will also refine our methods for enumerating areas with unique location characteristics, where we cannot mail to a street address."
In addition to tribal areas, the news release said the test was intended to oversample "areas with relatively high populations of American Indians and Alaska Natives as a mechanism for testing potential tribal enrollment questions nationwide."
The release said the planned tests were to support the goal of the 2020 census, "which is to count everyone once, only once and in the right place. This test will provide insights and guide pour planning to ensure an accurate census."
An update to the news release published in October 2016 announced that the Census Bureau would not conduct field tests in 2017 as planned, but would consider including the reservation sites in the bureau's 2018 End-to-End Census Test, which apparently did not happen.
One form of relief the federal lawsuit asks for is an injunction requiring the government to provide the court with a plan to ensure hard-to-count populations will be counted.
The government has asked a federal judge to dismiss the case, and a decision is pending.
Chase Iron Eyes, a Standing Rock tribal member and lead counsel for the Lakota People's Law Project, said reservation populations are traditionally undercounted for a number of reasons, one of them being a tendency for reservation residents to be circumspect about sharing household information, sometimes out of worry housing subsidies could be at risk.
"We do not talk to any non-Indian person that comes to our door asking about who lives in our house; we just do not do that," Iron Eyes said.
For an accurate count to take place, he said, an effort must be made to build trust with tribal members.
Iron Eyes advocated a creative approach that would enlist the help of tribal governments, perhaps linking census information gathering to positive activities, such as pow wows.
"If you have the cooperation of the tribal government, you can do things like that," he said.