The proposal to add a question about citizenship to the 2020 U.S. Census is reprehensible in any light. It will intimidate undocumented immigrants from responding and will deny Americans a true count of the people living in our nation’s borders.
Recently discovered writings of the late Republican strategist Thomas B. Hofeller, who was behind the administration’s push to add the question, managed to show the motivation in an even worse light. They establish its roots in a political calculation “advantageous to Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites” and make a fresh examination necessary. Although the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments about the citizenship question back in April, the justices must pause and take this linkage into account before deciding whether the question can remain part of the census.
Too much of American governance relies on an accurate census to allow cynical politics to manipulate the clean count the Constitution requires. A decision that shrugs off this new evidence would further undermine public faith in the court at a time when its once-prized reputation is turning dim.
A federal district judge this month set out a timeline for carefully evaluating the documents found on Hofeller’s computer by his daughter. Under the normal schedule, the U.S. Census form would need to be settled for printing by July 1. But the Trump administration has forced an extraordinary predicament upon the courts and the nation, and ordinary considerations should be set aside.
Printing can wait. An inaccurate and politically tilted census count will have consequences for years, perhaps decades.
The potential harm of proceeding is stated straightforwardly in Hofeller’s writings. Questioning citizenship on the census will deter noncitizen residents from coming forward — an understandable choice in a time of ramped-up deportations. Each state will then be drawing its congressional districts based on an inaccurate count. The consultant studied Texas, where most noncitizen residents are Latino and live in Democratic-leaning areas, a pattern common across the country.
The census won’t change the number of seats in Congress, but its count determines how those seats are parceled out among the states. A low count in a Latino area means its congressional district will include a larger piece of the map, sequestering voters to dilute their political voice. Under a complete count, those voters would be distributed among other districts, rather than concentrated into one.
The U.S. Census is too important to be used as a power grab. The revelation of the consultant’s writings gives the lie to the Trump administration’s dubious claim the census question is added to help the Voting Rights Act protect the political strength of minorities. The nation now can see plainly that the citizenship question is a mechanism to redistribute congressional power unevenly. If the Supreme Court shrugs that aside, the clamor to restructure — and further politicize — the highest court in the nation will grow ever louder, and justifiably so.