Nine years ago, two Republican senators, David Vitter, of Louisiana, and Robert Bennett, of Utah, tried to introduce a measure to change the way that the federal government conducts the census. The Census Bureau tabulates the over-all population, not just that of citizens, and its results have far-reaching consequences, affecting the allocation of federal resources and the apportionment of congressional seats. The senators wanted a law requiring that respondents be asked whether they are American citizens, so that congressional districts could be redrawn. Without such a change, Vitter said, “States that have large populations of illegals would be rewarded.” Other states, like his own, he said, were being “penalized.” The subtext was that the Democrats, who tend to be prominent in areas with high concentrations of immigrants, were gaining an advantage. The measure fell short of the necessary votes, as it did when Vitter proposed it again, in 2014 and in 2016. But his efforts reflected a persistent partisan logic. Now, on the eve of the 2020 census, it has reëmerged.
On Monday, the Department of Commerce announced that it was adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census. According to the Trump Administration, this step is “necessary for the Department of Justice to protect voters.” The Justice Department had requested the change in December, on the grounds that it needed to better enforce Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which is designed to prevent violations of voting rights. It was an odd claim: in 2013, when the Supreme Court struck down part of the Voting Rights Act, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, then a senator from Alabama, called the decision “good news . . . for the South.” A raft of state voter-suppression laws targeting minority voters followed, including in Texas, which passed a voter-I.D. law that a federal judge later found to be racially discriminatory. During the Obama Administration, the federal government filed a lawsuit against the state, but last year Sessions decided to drop it. “The idea that this question is being added to the census to protect minority voting rights so that the lines can be redrawn in a fair way is just too absurd to be believed,” Rick Hasen, an election-law expert at the University of California, Irvine, told me.
This week’s announcement caused an immediate outcry. Six former heads of the Census Bureau wrote to Wilbur Ross, the Commerce Secretary, registering their “deep concern,” and twelve states, including California and New York, said that they plan to sue the federal government over the move. Adding the citizenship question, Eric Schneiderman, the New York Attorney General, said, “will create an environment of fear and distrust in immigrant communities that would make impossible both an accurate census and the fair distribution of federal tax dollars.” He was reiterating a point that’s been made, repeatedly, by demographers, civil-rights advocates, and current and former government officials. Last November, a researcher at the Census Bureau named Mikelyn Meyers reported that there was an “unprecedented ground swell in confidentiality and data-sharing concerns among immigrants or those who live with immigrants.” In a presentation before the bureau’s National Advisory Committee, she described the panicked responses of immigrants who were afraid to answer survey questions in the current political climate, due to fears about deportation. “This behavior was an extreme departure from behavior that we have seen in the past,” she said. “This seems to be related to questions of legal residency or the perception that certain groups are not welcome.” By adding a citizen question to the census, the federal government may scare off residents from participating, and thus alter the results; that, in turn, could short-change future federal funding, and, if it caused district lines to be redrawn, cost Democrats congressional seats.