An affront to democracy


January 10, 2018

During the last week of December, with the halls of the U.S. Capitol nearly empty and millions of Americans paying attention to anything but the news, word emerged that a Department of Justice official formally has asked the Census Bureau to add a question to the 2020 Census about respondents’ citizenship status.
This proposal has so many downsides that they are almost impossible to count.  But let’s give it a shot.

First: Adding a question about citizenship will certainly cause a lower response rate.  Immigrants, including Latino and other communities already under assault by the Trump administration, simply will not fill out and return their Census forms, even though it is a matter of law that all people in the U.S. must be counted, whether or not citizens, and identifying individuals from their census response is prohibited

Second: The Census is already underfunded.  Adding a question about citizenship will drive costs up.  Why?  First, it costs money to add questions because it is necessary to test them carefully before launching the Census.  Second, when you do not fill out and return a Census form, it doesn’t stop there.  Census employees visit your home and knock on your door and interview you.  Edward McClellan is a former Census employee who knocked on people’s doors.  He writes:

As someone who worked as an enumerator in one of the most immigrant-heavy neighborhoods in the United States, I can tell you that asking respondents about their citizenship will make the next census both less accurate and more expensive. It would have made my work more difficult and time-consuming.

Third: The timing could not be worse.  The Census is scheduled to conduct its final dress rehearsal next month.  Questions on Census forms and methodologies already have undergone rigorous testing, all part of an effort to ensure that the 2020 count is every bit as accurate as possible.  Adding a question – especially a highly controversial and invasive one – at this late date invites disaster.

Vanita Gupta is the President and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.  On Jan. 4, she wrote a letter to Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, whose agency overseas the Census, strongly objecting to the citizenship question.  She stated:

As you well know, adding a new and untested question to the 2020 Census would disrupt preparations at a pivotal point in the decade, undermine years of costly, painstaking research and testing, and increase census costs significantly at a time when Congress has directed a less expensive enumeration. All of these factors would threaten a fair and accurate decennial census.

But the most compelling reason why adding a citizenship question to the long form of the 2020 Census is this:  It is an assault on, and an affront to, democracy.

The U.S. Census determines congressional representation – and its figures often are used to draw political districts further down the food chain, such as ward, city council and school board seats, as well as state legislative districts and electoral votes per state.  Its numbers are used to decide how the federal government will distribute more than half a trillion dollars – this is money that we taxpayers coughed up, and we deserve a fair and equitable distribution.

The citizenship question is but one way the Trump administration is working to undercut the Census, just as it is working to sabotage the Affordable Care Act and override hundreds if not thousands of environmental and other regulations that protect families.  As the Washington Post noted Jan. 2 in coming out firmly against the proposed question:

Perhaps no institution is more important to the functioning of American democracy than the census, the once-a-decade count of the U.S. population that determines congressional representation — and where billions in federal dollars will be spent. Yet both the GOP-led Congress and the Trump administration have hobbled the 2020 Census effort, which is entering its crucial final stages. Lawmakers have underfunded the Census Bureau, the White House has mismanaged the agency, and now the Justice Department is pushing for a change that could skew the count in Republicans’ favor.

Children, communities of color and low-income people are already the groups most likely to be undercounted, which could be made worse this year because the Census Bureau will ask people to respond online.  Congress should be working quickly to add the funds needed to carry out the Census as already planned, and not to sabotage it by trying to add an ill-advised citizenship question.