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Restrictions On Deployed U.S. Troop Data Could Put 2020 Census 'At Risk'

U.S. Marines stand guard during the change of command ceremony at Task Force Southwest military field at Shorab military camp in Afghanistan's Helmand province in 2018.
Massoud Hossaini
U.S. Marines stand guard during the change of command ceremony at Task Force Southwest military field at Shorab military camp in Afghanistan's Helmand province in 2018.

New security measures at the Department of Defense that limit the release of military records about U.S. troops deployed abroad could put the accuracy of the 2020 census "at risk," according to a newly released internal Census Bureau document.

"This new guidance places us in jeopardy of not having the information necessary to count those who are deployed overseas in the communities in which they live," Census Bureau officials wrote in a Jan. 14 memo, which was prepared for Deputy Secretary of Commerce Karen Dunn Kelley.

The document was provided to NPR by attorneys for the NAACP and its local affiliates in Connecticut and Boston who filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Commerce Department, which oversees the Census Bureau.

Counting deployed troops as residents of the stateside military installations where they're usually stationed is expected to be one of the major changes for next year's national head count.

Troops temporarily deployed to war zones and other dangerous locations make up 15 percent of all overseas service members — most of whom are stationed abroad — according to the Census Bureau memo. How this relatively small group is counted for the census, however, can have an outsize impact on how political representation is reapportioned among the states after 2020.

Beginning with the 1970 census, the bureau came up with numbers for dividing up congressional seats and Electoral College votes by officially adding all military members serving abroad during the head count to state population totals. That included both stationed and temporarily deployed troops, who were assigned to states based on the addresses provided when they enlisted. The one exception was the 1980 census, which did not include overseas troops in the apportionment count.

After years of advocacy by lawmakers and community leaders from areas with military bases nearby, the Census Bureau decided to make a switch for the 2020 census and count deployed troops at the bases or ports they are assigned away from on Census Day, April 1.

The change for 2020 is expected to provide a population boost in the tens of thousands to North Carolina, Kentucky and other states with military installations.

That stands to benefit those states when congressional seats and Electoral College votes are redistributed based on the 2020 head count. The new census numbers will also be used to help direct hundreds of billions of federal tax dollars for public services to local communities over the next decade.

To carry out the policy change for the 2020 census, the Census Bureau was planning to use records from the Defense Manpower Data Center, or DMDC. It would need the deployment status of service members to figure out how to include them in the population counts for the communities where their home bases or ports are located.

But according to the internal memo, the bureau learned in January that the DMDC "can no longer report" currently deployed service members, whose deployment data will not be provided by the military branches until 30 days after a member's assignment is complete.

The development comes more than a year after the Pentagon stopped posting quarterly updates on the DMDC's website that include the number of temporarily deployed service members, as well as U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

The Census Bureau memo notes that the agency requires a "redelivery" of military records from the DMDC by Feb. 28.

The bureau is still in discussions with the military about the issue, Michael Cook, a spokesperson for the bureau, tells NPR.

"Not receiving the files by February 28 does not place this effort or the census at risk," Cook says in an email. "This operation affects a small proportion and we are confident we will be able to count this group."

Discovering this issue now, Cook adds, allows the bureau to work out a solution in time for next year's census. The bureau is exploring using unclassified military records instead, and the possibility of the under secretary of defense for intelligence issuing new guidance specifying that data on deployment status and how long troops are deployed are not classified.

A Pentagon spokesperson, Air Force Lt. Col. Carla Gleason, declined to answer NPR's questions about the Census Bureau memo, noting that the Defense Department "does not comment on pre-decisional or classified information."

"The Defense Manpower Data Center has worked closely with the Census Bureau for decades providing all releasable information on [Department of Defense] personnel to improve and ensure the most accurate Census report possible," Gleason says in a written statement.

The Commerce Department released the internal Census Bureau document as part of the recent settlement of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed in 2017 by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the NAACP Connecticut State Conference and the NAACP Boston branch.

The civil rights groups have been pressing the bureau to be more transparent about its preparations for the 2020 census to avoid undercounting communities of color and other hard-to-count groups.

Jeff Zalesin — a law student intern with the Yale Law School Rule of Law Clinic, which is representing the NAACP and the other plaintiffs — says they are concerned by the "uncertainty" in the Census Bureau's plans for counting deployed troops.

"These are folks on the ground in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, dangerous places where they are putting themselves and their own safety on the line," Zalesin says. "And it's their communities that will suffer the results of the undercount of military service members if this problem isn't fixed."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.