Why It's So Dangerous to Add a Citizenship Question to the Census

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The U.S. Department of Commerce announced Monday night that the 2020 Census will include a question about respondents’ citizenship status.

“After a thorough review of the legal, program, and policy considerations, as well as numerous discussions with Census Bureau leadership, Members of Congress, and interested stakeholders, [Commerce Secretary Wilbur] Ross has determined that reinstatement of a citizenship question on the 2020 decennial census questionnaire is necessary to provide complete and accurate census block level data,” a Commerce Department press release said.


Citizenship questions have not appeared on Census forms since the 1950 Census.

The rule change may sound innocuous, but legal experts and civil rights groups say such a question would suppress the response rates of immigrants fearing deportation, thus systematically under-representing the number of non-citizens living in the country.

California’s Attorney General Xavier Becerra immediately announced his office would sue the Trump administration over the rules change.


Former Attorney General Eric Holder, who now leads the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, followed suit:

We will litigate to stop the Administration from moving forward with this irresponsible decision. The addition of a citizenship question to the census questionnaire is a direct attack on our representative democracy. This question will lower the response rate and undermine the accuracy of the count, leading to devastating, decade-long impacts on voting rights and the distribution of billions of dollars in federal funding. By asking this question, states will not have accurate representation and individuals in impacted communities will lose out on state and federal funding for health care, education, and infrastructure.


State legislatures use Census data to redraw their Congressional maps every 10 years, and the federal government uses Census data to decide how to allocate grants to different communities. Undermining an accurate Census count would have many other ramifications, as University of Florida professor Michael McDonald pointed out:


The Trump administration’s move comes just a week after a Kansas court wrapped up the trial of Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, whom the American Civil Liberties Union sued over the state’s 2011 SAFE Act, which requires voters to show their birth certificate, passport, or naturalization papers in order to register to vote.


The Kobach trial included this telling exchange, reported by HuffPost, between Jesse Richman, one of Kobach’s expert witnesses, and Dale Ho, the director of the ACLU’s voting rights project:

When Richman was looking at Kansas voter roll data and DMV records to identify potential noncitizens, one factor he took into account was how “foreign-sounding” a name was. Even though it was just one factor in Richman’s analysis, the ACLU recognized it was a chance to show his analysis was unscientific. Ho asked Richman if he would consider the name Carlos Murguia to be a foreign sounding one. When Richman said he would, Ho informed him that Murguia was a federal judge who sat in the courthouse where the trial was being conducted.


The White House disbanded Kobach’s controversial election commission in January, but the Census move on Monday is straight out of the Kobach playbook. And, to add insult to injustice, Ross is arguing the rules change will help uphold the tenets of the Voting Rights Act.

“Having citizenship data at the census block level will permit more effective enforcement of the VRA, and Secretary Ross determined that obtaining complete and accurate information to meet this legitimate government purpose outweighed the limited potential adverse impacts,” the Commerce Department press release said.


War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength, etc.

A fair and accurate Census count is crucial to having a democratic elections process, and to having a government that knows who it is supposed to be serving. A Census that purposefully suppresses information from immigrants and people of color is a Census that can and will be weaponized to make the U.S. government even less representative of its citizenry than it already is.

Senior politics reporter at Splinter.

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