Are you an American citizen? The Trump administration really wants to know. In March, it added to the 2020 census a question asking people, for the first time in more than half a century, about their citizenship status. Administration officials have claimed, in public and before Congress, that the Justice Department needs the question answered in order to properly enforce the Voting Rights Act. But late last month, the government turned over a batch of emails as part of a federal lawsuit that casts significant doubt on those claims. The push to include the question has also set off concerns about the way such data might be used in the next decennial redistricting cycle, which begins in 2021. For perspective, the editorial board spoke with Vanita Gupta, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of groups that is opposing the citizenship question. From 2014 to 2017, Ms. Gupta served as the acting head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division. The new documents give us evidence in black and white of something that many of us already suspected to be the case: The rationale that the Justice Department needs to go door-to-door to find out who is a citizen in order to enforce the Voting Rights Act is obviously a ruse.
The documents show that, contrary to what administration officials have claimed, the decision to add a citizenship status question to the 2020 census was made in the early days of the Trump administration, and it was made without any thought whatsoever to the consequences for the success and accuracy of the census, for scientific accuracy or for the Census Bureau’s own judgment.
The president’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, clearly was involved from the outset. He worked with the commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, and his political staff to make it happen and to provide the rationale later.
There’s a startling 2017 email from Secretary Ross’s chief political liaison to the White House, Earl Comstock, who acknowledges the secretary’s frustration with how slowly things were going in the process to add the question to the census — this is in May 2017 — and he assures the commerce chief that he’s going to get it done. In another email, Comstock said that he would arrange for the Justice Department to request the citizenship status question, and that he believes there are court cases to justify the need for that data. It’s trying to backdoor in a rationale that might be perceived as more politically acceptable.