A recent request by the Department of Justice to add a question on citizenship to the 2020 census could threaten participation, and as a consequence, affect the allocation of federal money and distribution of congressional seats. In December, the Department of Justice sent a letter to the Census Bureau asking that it reinstate a question on citizenship to the 2020 census. “This data is critical to the Department’s enforcement of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and its important protections against racial discrimination in voting,” the department said in a letter. “To fully enforce those requirements, the Department needs a reliable calculation of the citizen voting-age population in localities where voting rights violations are alleged or suspected.” The request immediately met pushback from census experts, civil rights advocates, and a handful of Democratic senators, who say that the argument is unfounded and that the timing of the request is irresponsible.
The census is used for allocating nearly $700 billion a year in federal money, electoral votes, as well as for the apportionment of House districts—that is, deciding how many representatives a state sends to Congress each year. The Census Act requires that all questions asked on the census fulfill a purpose. “If the Census Bureau or the administration can establish that there is a legal requirement, a requirement in law for citizenship data for the smallest levels of geography, then that would be justification for asking every household about the citizenship status of household members but no such law exists right now,” said Terri Ann Lowenthal, an independent consultant and leading expert on census issues. The bureau is then required to submit a final list of questions, which are tested beforehand, for the decennial census two years before its roll out. The bureau needs to send the questions for the 2020 census to Congress by April, leaving the bureau little opportunity to test a new question before submitting it to Congress.
Congressional apportionment is based on overall population, not citizens, specifically, therefore an inaccurate count would directly affect how seats in the U.S. House are distributed. That means that if fewer undocumented immigrants or minorities are willing to participate in the census, it could affect the political balance in Congress, since those populations tend to be concentrated in cities, where Democrats draw most of their support. According to a study by Election Data Services Inc., based on population estimates by the Census Bureau, up to 16 states could either lose or gain a congressional seat as a result of the decennial census. Minnesota, for example, is at risk of losing a seat in the House and is relying on an accurate census count to keep it.