As I write this, the media is proclaiming that President Trump has backtracked on his various plans to include a specific question on the official 2020 census form. The item the Trump administration wanted would ask respondents if they were born in the United States. If not, it further would ask if they were born in specific United States overseas territories or to parents who were U.S. citizens—these options would make them citizens at birth. Then there was an option that asked if they were naturalized and what year that occurred. The final choice on the list was “No, not a U.S. citizen.” The administration wanted this question so much that they took their argument to the Supreme Court, and after the Court turned them down the president continued for a while to insist that he would find a way to bypass that decision. Therefore, in a sense, the president’s team did back down, meaning that they accepted the reality that they would not be able to put their citizenship question on the census form. They did not, however, reverse course on the questionable purposes that the question was designed to achieve.
To understand this fact we have to briefly review the background of the census and the citizenship question. The broad purpose of the census, as defined by the Constitution and a number of laws passed by congress, is to provide generalized population data for use by government agencies. Most notably, census data is used to apportion federal funds and to determine the size of congressional districts for members of the House of Representatives. The census bureau only provides this data in anonymized form; any individually identifiable information is restricted by a rule that prohibits public disclosure of any such data for 72 years after it is collected.
One of the problems with the census is that many people do not know about the 72-year rule or do not believe it can be trusted. The rule was, in fact, violated during World War II, allowing the government to identify and round up Italian nationals and citizens of Japanese descent to move them into detention centers. That was a rare exception. But mistrust of the census has increased since the beginning of the Trump administration because of well-publicized policies such as the immigrant crackdowns and the Muslim ban. A Census Bureau memorandum from September 2017 noted an “increase in respondents spontaneously expressing concerns about confidentiality.” Any specific question that would seem to feed into Trumpian anti-immigrant tendencies could be expected to add to this level of mistrust, especially if it was one that was added by the same administration.
There have been many recent arguments about whether a citizenship question has been previously included in the census, and the rough answer to that is that it has, but only on a partial basis. The historical record is complex, as you can see by referring to an article on the NPR website. After reviewing the history of the census, that same article concludes that “if the 2020 census form does ultimately ask about citizenship status, it will be the first time the U.S. census has directly asked for the citizenship status of every person living in every household.” The first time. The Census Bureau resisted breaking with their lengthy tradition, arguing that adding the citizenship question would increase mistrust of the motives of the census process and would decrease participation among households containing non-citizens.
The question then becomes, why does the current administration so desperately want to include this question? They wouldn’t be able to make use of individual data to deport non-citizens unless they could convince the Census Bureau and the courts that it was justified by a significant national security crisis. That would be unlikely. But that was never their intent. The actual intent was disclosed by opponents during court proceedings, and it ties in with the larger long-standing Republican strategy to win elections by restricting and otherwise reducing participation by voters who favor Democrats.
In testimony and documents presented in three court cases and before the Supreme Court, the Trump administration argued that the citizenship question was needed to improve enforcement of the Voting Rights Act (1965). That by itself would be a suspect statement because the primary individuals involved in promoting the citizenship question included Wilbur Ross, Steve Bannon, and Kris Kobach, men known for opposing the provisions of that very act. The background information provided by opponents of the question made it clear that the motives of the Trump administration were, in fact, to do exactly what the Census Bureau had warned against; to reduce participation in the census and in that way to reduce official population levels in regions with high percentages of minorities, with the specific goal of reducing their voting power in congress. Opponents also provided evidence that the Trump administration wanted to use granular citizenship data to support Republicans during the redistricting process (i.e., gerrymandering). Trump administration witnesses had concealed all of these motives. New York Judge Jesse Furman noted that the administration’s arguments were “the acts and statements of officials with something to hide.”
In the Supreme Court’s 5 to 4 decision Chief Justice Roberts unexpectedly turned against the administration’s strategy. In his written conclusions, Roberts noted that “The evidence tells a story that does not match the explanation (Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross) gave for his decision. The sole stated reason seems to have been contrived.” He further implied that he might otherwise have approved including the citizenship question on the census, noting, “We do not hold that the agency decision here was substantively invalid. But agencies must pursue their goals reasonably. Reasoned decision-making under the Administrative Procedure Act calls for an explanation for agency action. What was provided here was more of a distraction.”
Following the Supreme Court decision, President Trump initially signaled defiance, saying that he would find a way, perhaps through executive orders, to get the question back on the census form. After a few days he relented. As I noted above, the media characterized this as a concession, a reversal. But it wasn’t, as was made clear in the statements of President Trump and Attorney General William Barr in the press conference they called to announce their decision. Instead of using a citizenship question on the census form, they said they are authorizing a broad interchange of data from all relvant federal agencies to compile citizenship data. The results, Attorney General Barr noted, will be used for “apportionment purposes,” in other words to determine the size of districts for congressional representation. That is a potentially sinister comment, given that prominent Republicans have frequently proposed changes that would base apportionment not on the total population, but on the number of eligible voters in a district. A current lawsuit in Alabama argues that non-citizens can’t be counted in determining apportionment. The purpose, once again, is to reduce the number of congressional representatives coming from regions with high percentages of undocumented residents, districts in states such as California, Texas, Illinois, New Jersey, and New York, most of them districts that generally vote for Democrats.
In short, the citizenship question was simply another ploy in the overall Republican strategy that is dedicated to disenfranchising Democratic voters, the wide-reaching plan that includes partisan gerrymandering, voter ID requirements, intentionally inaccurate voter purges, and reductions in voting hours, locations, or available voting booths in Democratic precincts. Unfortunately, all of the media coverage about the Trump plans, with no mention of the 72-year rule, may have partially succeeded in this effort by making more people nervous about the census and about the ways their census data might be used. In any case, the Trump administration is planning to continue with their voting restrictions with whatever citizenship data they can obtain.