Biden Moves to Protect the Scientific Integrity of the Census

January 26, 2021 | 2:19 pm
Residents of Wichita Falls, TX, rallying to the 2020 CensusPedro Tenorio/US Air Force
Michael Latner
Senior Voting Rights Fellow

One of President Biden’s first executive orders has reversed President Trump’s unprecedented effort to alter the count of persons in the U.S. Census, the nation’s largest scientific project. The Census count of persons allocates the 435 seats to the House of Representations based on state population, in addition to directing 1.5 trillion in federal spending. The order also rescinds a Trump directive to provide citizenship data to states for redistricting using government records.

First, the order ensures that the Census will provide a full count of persons, cancelling Trump’s unconstitutional effort to exclude undocumented immigrants from the count. As a presidential candidate, Joe Biden quickly denounced then-president Trump’s executive order, responding on Twitter: “We won’t let him deny communities the funding and representation they deserve. Because in America, everyone counts.” Days before Biden signed his order, Trump-appointed Census Director Steven Dillingham announced his resignation.

The order also rescinds Trump’s attempt to collect and provide citizenship data at the census block-level using government records, data that could be used by states to draw Congressional and legislative districts using the citizen voting age population (CVAP in redistricting lingo). This was the administration’s effort to generate block-level non-citizen data after a court prohibited them from placing a citizenship question on the Census. Both these efforts were driven by the overarching goal of drawing 2022 legislative districts that would be politically “advantageous to Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites” in the words of deceased GOP redistricting guru Thomas Hofeller.

As a result of the order, the Census Bureau has now stated that it will not include information on citizenship as part of the redistricting files sent to states later this year. Excluding children and non-citizens from representation is likely unconstitutional (the question has not been directly tested), but without the data it becomes more difficult to attempt. We will not know the overall quality of data from this Census for several months, but it is likely that the underfunding of outreach programs, the attempt to add a citizenship question, and the rush to end the count in the midst of a pandemic will lead to under-reporting from hard-to-reach populations. Tragically, many of the same populations are disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 virus.

Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) is expected to submit legislation that would provide a 4-month extension for data preparation, which the Census Bureau requested back in April. During that period, Congress has time to require that states use the data in a way that protects political equality and ensures fair and effective representation for all.

It is not too early for Congress to develop protocols to ensure the scientific integrity of both the application of 2020 Census data, as well as the administration of the next Census. Deweaponizing the nation’s largest scientific enterprise and protecting those who design and administer it from political pressure must be a top priority for the Biden administration and this Congress.

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Michael Latner is a Senior Fellow with the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. His research focuses on political representation and electoral systems, including redistricting and gerrymandering in the US, and the impact of electoral administrative law on political participation.