WASHINGTON — The Census Bureau said on Tuesday that it had created two new top-level positions and filled them with political appointees from outside the agency, an unprecedented move that revived concerns the national population count has turned increasingly partisan.
The census, which is constitutionally mandated to count every person in the country every decade, has traditionally been carried out in a rigidly nonpartisan fashion.
But critics fear that the appointments are the latest sign that the census, which is used to apportion federal dollars and political representation, has become increasingly politicized — and a way for Republicans to bend census results to advance their electoral interests.
Tuesday’s announcement comes almost one year after the Supreme Court ruled that the administration could not ask census respondents whether they were American citizens. This ended a bitter legal battle over charges that Republicans were trying to deter immigrants, ethnic minorities and others who tend to vote Democratic from responding to the survey.
Until now, only the director of the Census Bureau, its congressional liaison and its spokesperson have been political appointees. And for decades, the agency’s directors and top managers have been career statisticians, economists and survey methodologists — sometimes eminent ones.
But neither appointee announced on Tuesday appears to have the extensive experience in census issues or administration that is traditional for such senior roles at the bureau.
In a news release, the bureau’s director, Steven Dillingham, said Nathaniel T. Cogley, a professor who heads the government department at a Texas university, would take a new position as deputy director for policy.
Mr. Cogley, who received a Ph.D. in political science from Yale University in 2013, is an assistant professor at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas. His résumé lists dozens of appearances on television and radio programs as a commentator on political issues, as well as opinion pieces in which he has criticized technical aspects of the Democratic House’s impeachment case against President Trump.
Mr. Dillingham also said Mr. Cogley’s senior adviser would be Adam Korzeniewski, described on a LinkedIn page bearing his name as a former political consultant for Republican candidates who most recently worked for five months in a Census Bureau field job in New York.
Mr. Korzeniewski earned a bachelor’s degree in statistics and computer science in 2017 from Columbia University, according to the LinkedIn page, which appears to have been taken down. Before then, according to the profile, Mr. Korzeniewski spent five years in the Marines, including a stretch in Afghanistan.
The two men have been working since April as advisers to a deputy of Commerce Secretary Wilbur L. Ross Jr., who oversees the Census Bureau. The news release said they would “help the bureau achieve a complete and accurate 2020 census and study future improvements” in technology and data collection.
“The importance of more and better data for decision making will continue as the heart of the Census Bureau mission,” the release stated.
The announcement quickly drew sharp criticism from outside experts and groups that have been pressing for a complete and nonpartisan census. And it comes on the heels of recent White House moves to fire the heads of two other traditionally nonpartisan federal agencies — the Post Office and Voice of America — and replace them with Trump loyalists.
A veteran private consultant on census issues for business and nonprofit groups, Terri Ann Lowenthal, called the Census Bureau appointments “deeply disturbing.”
“Their proximity to the director and lack of relevant expertise suggest a thinly veiled effort to interfere in the implementation and outcome of the 2020 census for the administration’s benefit,” said Ms. Lowenthal, who oversaw a review of federal statistical operations for President Barack Obama’s 2008 transition team. “It’s hard to draw any other conclusion.”
Representative Carolyn B. Maloney of New York, the Democratic chair of a House committee overseeing the bureau, called the appointees “political operatives” chosen by the Trump administration and accused officials of “using the census for political gain.”
Kenneth Prewitt, a Columbia University professor who headed the Census Bureau during the 2000 count, called the appointments “a frightening development.”
“Two decades ago, I said it was impossible for the White House to manipulate data in such a way as to affect the distribution of seats in Congress,” he said. “I was wrong. If this plays out as we fear, this would be a partisan use of the census that is unprecedented.”
The bureau did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the reaction or for interviews with the two appointees.
Last year the administration lost a pitched legal battle over the census that centered on charges that the White House was trying to rig the population count to benefit Republicans.
In that fight, Mr. Ross sought to add a question on citizenship to the census questionnaire, saying it was needed to better enforce civil rights laws. The Supreme Court rejected that explanation as not credible, and much of the evidence suggested that his real motive was to discourage racial and ethnic minorities from filling out census forms.
The resulting population totals would have depicted an older, whiter America than actually exists, boosting the power of the Republican Party’s core constituency when census totals are used to draw new political boundaries next year.
Some veteran Census Bureau officials are increasingly worried that the new appointees will seek to skew the 2020 census totals in a similarly inaccurate way, accomplishing what the battle over the citizenship question failed to achieve.
Since arriving at the Commerce Department in April, Mr. Cogley and Mr. Korzeniewski have met with several Census Bureau officials to discuss the agency’s operations. According to one senior census official who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, they have repeatedly questioned the need for census operations that focus on accurately counting the nation’s hardest-to-reach residents.
Those so-called hard-to-count populations — overwhelmingly minorities and lower-income residents — are the last crucial segment that the 2020 census has yet to reach, the people who have not responded to repeated requests to turn in their census forms.
In a normal census, the bureau dispatches an army of field workers during the summer to knock on doors and count those populations in person. But the coronavirus pandemic has halted those efforts for months, and the bureau only now is starting to gear up for that part of the count.
Sheelagh McNeill contributed research