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Navajo Nation wins court battle to extend U.S. Census count; appeal expected

A boy and his sister play in their family compound in Tuba City, Ariz., on the Navajo reservation on April 22, 2020. If Navajos are susceptible to the virus' spread in part because they are so closely knit, that's also how many believe they will beat it. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz.– A U.S. District Court Judge ruled in favor of the Navajo Nation and co-plaintiffs Thursday, requiring the 2020 Census count to continue through October. However, it’s expected the U.S. Census Bureau, the Department of Commerce and other federal officials will file an appeal.

The Navajo Nation joined a lawsuit Sept. 1 against the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Commerce to halt the Census “Replan“: a move that shortened the time to complete data collection for the 2020 Census by imposing a new deadline of Sept. 30.

The bureau also cut the time to complete data processing to Dec. 31.  

The Census Bureau moved up the deadline because of the coronavirus pandemic complicating data collection efforts, such as field workers being unable to knock on doors to count U.S. residents. Initially, the Bureau extended the deadline to Oct. 31 — but that was later changed when the Trump administration ordered to complete the census by the end of September.  

It’s important to note census data is responsible for drawing congressional district lines, something states rely on for election purposes.  

Navajo Nation sues for more time 

However, states and marginalized communities worried the accelerated date would cause skewed results, creating an inaccurate census count.  

In a press release Friday, the Navajo Nation said it sued the federal government over what they believe to be an “illegally curtailed time to complete the 2020 census.” They said the move threatens “to cause a significant undercount of minority populations,” including members of the Nation. 

Jonathan Nez, president of the Navajo Nation, said the pandemic is not an adequate reason to end the count early. 

“As the first people of this country, we have every right to be counted in the 2020 Census,” Nez said. “The coronavirus pandemic has set all of us back and created many challenges to get people counted, especially for rural areas such as the Navajo Nation.”

Specifically, the Nation said it relies on field workers going door-to-door to collect residential data.

“This phase is especially critical on the Navajo Nation, where the response to earlier phases of data collection is low and much lower in relation to other regions of the United States,” Navajo officials said. 

Officials also said it’s difficult for Navajo residents to independently complete the census because of the lack of telecommunication access. 

“Completing the census is already very challenging for many households due to the lack of telecommunications infrastructure in many Navajo communities, but we are providing assistance by partnering with census officials during our distribution events, ” explained Vice President Lizer. “The COVID-19 pandemic has created many challenges, especially for our elders and remote residents. We need adequate time to complete the 2020 Census with an accurate count.” 

To combat low turnout, the Nation coined September as “Navajo Nation Census Month,” to encourage residents to complete the census.