The state of California sued the Trump administration Monday night, arguing that the decision to add a question about citizenship in the 2020 census violates the U.S. Constitution.

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The state of California sued the Trump administration Monday night, arguing that the decision to add a question about citizenship in the 2020 census violates the U.S. Constitution.

The suit is just the start of what is likely to be a broader battle with enormous political stakes that pits Democratic states, which believe they may lose presidential electoral votes, seats in Congress and in state legislatures, against Republicans, who gained a significant advantage in redrawing maps after the 2010 census, as The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake reported.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra was among several Democrats who vowed to challenge the addition of the question, which was announced late Monday by the Commerce Department at the urging of the Justice Department.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said the data could help identify potential voting rights violations by providing more accurate information than currently available about the proportion of a congressional district’s population that is actually eligible to vote by virtue of holding citizenship.

Becerra and other critics argue that including the question in the once-a-decade census will discourage non-citizens from responding, leading to an undercount that could severely affect the distribution of federal funding and the drawing of congressional districts.

In raw political terms, it has been estimated that such an undercount could cost California at least one seat in the House of Representatives and, on the national level, shift political power from cities to more rural communities with the benefits falling to the Republican Party, as The Post’s Michael Scherer has written.

California’s lawsuit alleges the change violates the constitutional requirement of “actual Enumeration” of every person in every state, every 10 years.

“It is long settled that all persons residing in the United States — citizens and non-citizens alike — must be counted to fulfill the Constitution’s ‘actual Enumeration’ mandate,” the lawsuit stated. Becerra also argued the move violated the Administrative Procedure Act’s prohibition against “arbitrary and capricious” agency action.

“The census numbers provide the backbone for planning how our communities can grow and thrive in the coming decade,” Becerra said in a statement. “California simply has too much to lose for us to allow the Trump Administration to botch this important decennial obligation. What the Trump Administration is requesting is not just alarming, it is an unconstitutional attempt to discourage an accurate census count.”

The Commerce Department, in a memorandum, portrayed the move as a way to better enforce Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. Asking census respondents if they are citizens would help the government gather currently unavailable data on the population of people who are actually eligible to vote, the memorandum said.

Commerce Department officials said that a Census Bureau analysis failed to provide “definitive, empirical support” that adding a citizenship question would reduce response rates, producing the sort of undercount feared by Becerra.

“The Department of Commerce is not able to determine definitively how inclusion of a citizenship question on the decennial census will impact responsiveness,” Ross wrote in his memo. “However, even if there is some impact on responses, the value of more complete and accurate data derived from surveying the entire population outweighs such concerns.”

In an attempt to minimize any impact on response rates, Ross directed the Census Bureau to place the citizenship question last on the census form.

“The citizenship data provided” to the Justice Department as it reviews remapping for violations of voting rights “will be more accurate with the question than without it, which is of greater importance than any adverse effect that may result from people violating their legal duty to respond” to the census, Ross wrote.

Critics disputed the government’s claims that effects would be minimal. Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who serves as chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, said it a statement that the decision could lead to “devastating, decadelong impacts on voting rights and the distribution of billions of dollars in federal funding.”

“We will litigate to stop the Administration from moving forward with this irresponsible decision,” Holder wrote. “The addition of a citizenship question to the census questionnaire is a direct attack on our representative democracy.”

“Make no mistake — this decision is motivated purely by politics,” Holder added. “In deciding to add this question without even testing its effects, the Administration is departing from decades of census policy and ignoring the warnings of census experts.”

Indeed, the announcement was met with significant criticism from census experts on Monday night. Terri Ann Lowenthal, a census expert and former congressional staffer who worked on census oversight, called the move a mistake and predicted a number of legal challenges from advocacy groups.

“My biggest worry is the growing risk that public confidence in the census will drop significantly,” Lowenthal said. “Between evidence that the administration is manipulating the census for political gain, and fear that the administration will use the census to harm immigrants, confidence in the integrity of the count could plummet. And the census is only as good as the public’s willingness to participate.”

Former Census Bureau director Kenneth Prewitt said the decision “makes for a stormy situation given the unique visibility of the census. We have no idea how the untested insertion of a citizenship question will affect public cooperation. My guess? We will have a less accurate census than the nation could have had.”

The citizenship question will be similar to the one included since 2005 on the American Community Survey, which is sent annually to a sample of about 2.6 percent of the population. The Justice Department currently uses data from that survey to enforce the Voting Rights Act, but says the data is “insufficient in scope, detail, and certainty” for use in identifying voting rights violations, Ross wrote.

The census regularly asked about citizenship between 1820 and 1950, when the question was removed. In December, the Justice Department requested that the Census Bureau reinstate the question in the 2020 census.

California would be particularly hard-hit by the change, due to its high proportion of foreign-born and undocumented residents, as Becerra’s lawsuit states.

“Undercounting the sizeable number of Californian non-citizens and their citizen relatives will imperil the State’s fair share of congressional seats and Electoral College electors and will cost the State billions in federal funding over the next decade,” the attorney general’s lawsuit says.

In an opinion piece Monday in the San Francisco Chronicle, Becerra and California Secretary of State Alex Padilla described the move as “truly insidious” and an “extraordinary attempt by the Trump administration to hijack the 2020 census for political purposes.” An undercount, Becerra and Padilla argued, could jeopardize crucial community services such as homeland security funds, natural disaster preparation, and health care and infrastructure resources.

The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund said the addition “would have catastrophic consequences for Latinos and all Americans.”

“The stakes are too high for a failed 2020 Census, and we will not sit idly by as those with malice intentions seek to thwart a fair and accurate count of immigrants, Latinos and all Americans,” the organization said in a statement.

“The fight has just begun, and we will not stop until we have exhausted all avenues to provide the Census Bureau with the fix and certainty it needs to tackle its most ambitious task yet, counting the largest American population in history.”

The Washington Post’s Heather Long and Tara Bahrampour contributed to this report.