Testimony wrapped up Thursday over the Trump administration’s addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 Census as government attorneys sought to show it would not harm the accuracy of the count. In the second week of trial at U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland in Greenbelt, the Census Bureau’s chief scientist, John Abowd, was called to testify by both sides. Abowd, who has testified in similar trials in New York and California, told government lawyers that although the citizenship question would be likely to produce a drop in the initial self-response rate and make the count more costly, the undercount could ultimately be mitigated by census enumerators doing a Nonresponse Followup Operation (NRFU). But when questioned by plaintiffs’ lawyers, Abowd said that even if the households that failed to initially respond could ultimately be counted by the NRFU, adding the question would irreparably harm the accuracy of many of those responses. “The increase in cost and the degradation of the data cannot be remediated by NRFU,” he said.
During two days of testimony, his opinion on adding the citizenship question was consistent — and stark.
“As the chief scientist of the Census Bureau, you do not think that adding a citizenship question to the 2020 Census is a good idea, correct?” asked Karun Tilak, an attorney at Covington and Burling, which represents some of the plaintiffs.
“That’s correct,” Abowd said.
At the core of the challenge is the premise that asking about citizenship on the constitutionally mandated decennial survey of every household in the United States will scare people who are not citizens or who live with noncitizens, resulting in an inaccurate count. Census data is used to dole out federal funds, apportion congressional seats and draw districts. It is also used by private and public organizations for planning and analysis.