Only six sentences into America’s constitution, the founders instructed Congress to conduct, within three years of its first meeting, an “actual enumeration” of people living in each state as well as additional headcounts “within every subsequent term of ten years”. But the decennial census involves much more than raw numbers. A state’s share of the national population determines how many seats in the House of Representatives—and how many electoral votes in presidential elections—it will control. It also dictates how $650bn in federal funds for services like education, road-building and disaster relief are divvied up among states and localities. Every decade, the census brings angst for states that fear they may lose congressional representation and excitement for those hoping to pick up a seat or two. But the looming 2020 census (America’s 24th) has caused particular concern, over what Steven Choi of the New York Immigration Coalition, an umbrella immigrant-rights organisation, calls a “more than fishy” decision to include a new question: “Is this person a citizen of the United States?”
It has been 70 years since a query regarding citizenship appeared on the census. Now Wilbur Ross, the secretary of commerce, faces six consolidated lawsuits—two each in California, Maryland and New York—over his announcement in March this year that he intends to type it back in. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia—together with 15 cities, several counties and immigrant-aid groups including the New York Immigration Coalition—are suing Mr Ross and the Commerce Department for flouting proper rule-changing procedures, discriminating against immigrants and attempting to scare them away from participating in the census. The trial, which began on November 5th in New York City, has been long on rather arcane details of survey design and methodology. But testimony from former Census Bureau officials, scholars and statisticians suggests something quite clear: Mr Ross’s plan sprang not from a genuine need for citizenship data but from political discussions with White House officials including noted anti-immigrant figures like Steve Bannon. The inclusion of the question deviates from the normal practice of field-testing questions extensively, for years, before adding them to the census and is likely to result in a significant undercount of people in immigrant communities.