Happy Birthday America: The Census is Intact, for Now

July 3, 2019 | 4:17 pm
Michael Latner
Senior Voting Rights Fellow

With news that the Trump administration has abandoned its attempt to place a citizenship question on the 2020 Decennial Census, the people of the United States received the best birthday gift they could hope for, averting a xenophobic and racist effort to disenfranchise millions of people of color by corrupting the nation’s largest civic event. Today we can all celebrate knowing that the oath that US Marshals first took in 1790, to complete “a just and perfect enumeration” of all persons, remains intact, thanks to the efforts of thousands of scientists, legal experts, and advocates. However, undercounts resulting from budget negligence and disinformation campaigns remain a serious threat to the integrity of the Census. Come 2020, we have to be more vigilant than ever to ensure that every voice is counted in order to stop the further erosion of our democratic infrastructure.

Why Trump abandoned his attempt to weaponize the Census

Of all his actions that undermine US democracy, corruption of the nation’s largest non-military exercise for discriminatory purposes would possibly have been the most destructive. The Census, in addition to determining the allocation of about $800 billion in federal program funding for medical services, schools, housing, and infrastructure, also provides economic data that shapes the function of the entire economy, and of course is used to allocate seats to the House of Representatives.

Recently revealed court records show that even before President Trump took office, officials involved in his transition team were figuring out how to place a citizenship question on the Census in order to minimize the voting power of Hispanics and be “advantageous to Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites” according to a memo from GOP demographer Thomas Hofeller, who had simulated redistricting plans using citizen voting age populations, rather than total population.

President Trump and Electoral “Integrity” Commission Leader Kris Kobach, who was eventually held in contempt of court for failing to notify voters of eligibility as Kansas Secretary of State

As soon as it was clear that Trump and loyalists like Kris Kobach, co-chair of the infamous (and quickly disbanded) “Electoral Integrity”commission, were serious about getting their citizenship question, supposedly for the purposes of better enforcing the Voting Rights Act, the scientific community took action: several former Census directors voiced their concern about the “huge, unpredictable consequences” that placing an untested question could produce, and leading scientific organizations and users of Census data, joined by the Union of Concerned Scientists, sent letters to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, explaining the importance of maintaining the scientific integrity of the nation’s most valuable data resource.

In March 2017, when Secretary Ross announced his intention to add the question, the civil rights community fought back: lawsuits were filed in several states and Congress held hearings, where testimony revealed that not only would adding the question likely result in an undercount of 5-12%, concentrated in hard-to-count and immigrant communities, but that the administration had no legitimate justification to add the question, given evidence that it would be more difficult to enforce the Voting Rights Act with such flawed data. Then last week, and shortly after the damning evidence of the Trump administration’s discriminatory intentions were revealed, the Supreme Court blocked the question from being added, based on its conclusion that the justification was “contrived.” President Trump initially responded by threatening to delay the Census until he got a more favorable decision, but administration officials declared that the Census forms were being printed without the question.

Serious threats to the integrity of the Census, and democracy, remain

After the initial surrender, President Trump has since contradicted his own administration officials, tweeting that “News Reports about the Department of Commerce dropping its quest to put the Citizenship Question on the Census is incorrect, or, to state it differently, FAKE!”

The president has also abandoned the public justification for the question, resorting to his typical xenophobic vitriol:

“I think it’s very important to find out if somebody’s a citizen as opposed to an illegal. I think that there’s a big difference to me between being a citizen of the United States and being an illegal.”

It is beside the point that a citizenship question would not even determine whether a non-citizen is here illegally. We are likely to see much more of this language coming from the White House, with a clear intent of frightening immigrants and lowering their response rates, thereby amplifying the representation of Non-Hispanic whites in the census count and distorting the allocation of seats to the House of Representatives. The Census Bureau may even be planning to provide citizenship data to states from other administrative sources, in an effort to encourage the creation of citizen-only redistricting maps, mirroring the discriminatory intent of the Census citizenship question. The Supreme Court has been agnostic on the question of whether such maps would be constitutional.

A republic, if we can keep it

Finally, there will likely be a more coordinated effort coming from enemies of democracy within and abroad. Try searching #boycottcensus on Twitter and you will already find a large number of right-wing actors (and bots) urging conservatives, especially in blue states, to not take part in the Census.

This is the battle before us. Having preserved the integrity of the Census questionnaire (for now), it is time to ensure the integrity of its implementation. It is our largest civic event, derived straight from the Constitution: the snapshot of America that literally constitutes our numeric population, once a decade. Our Census is the technology that gives life to our constitutional protections, as the measurement of population traits is what allows political power to be allocated to us. To the degree that it is corrupted, so is our democracy.

Celebrate today, because we have earned it. And when the Census rolls out in 2020, we must work together to educate, organize and engage all our neighbors to take part, liberals and conservatives, citizens and non-citizens, to ensure that everyone is aware of their rights, especially those who have been systematically targeted by this administration in such an un-American fashion.