If the U.S. Supreme Court fails to eliminate a citizenship question from the 2020 census, Americans must consider carefully how to respond to this brazen political maneuver.

Former Gov. Gary Locke, who oversaw the census a decade ago as U.S. Commerce Secretary, suggests a path of mild lawbreaking: fill out the census form accurately, but leave the citizenship question unanswered. This breaks an obscure and long-dormant statute requiring responses to every census question. It is also the best of a set of bad choices the Trump administration has thrust upon all Americans.

The Constitution requires an accurate population count every decade to guide government decisions from political mapmaking to federal spending. Recently revealed documents show the Commerce Department added the citizenship query after a political strategist found evidence doing so would undercount the true population and result in political districts that benefit Republican interests. As The Seattle Times’ Gene Balk reported, a study estimates a national undercount of more than 4 million residents — more than 75,000 in Washington — if the question is asked.

This nakedly partisan move corrupts the census. But the Supreme Court may well overlook the convincing evidence that the citizenship question has been added in bad faith. A decision is expected soon.

Former Washington Gov. Gary Locke, who oversaw the census a decade ago as U.S. Commerce Secretary, suggests filling out the census form accurately but leaving the citizenship question unanswered. (AP Photo / Elaine Thompson, File)
Former Washington Gov. Gary Locke, who oversaw the census a decade ago as U.S. Commerce Secretary, suggests filling out the census form accurately but leaving the citizenship question unanswered. (AP Photo / Elaine Thompson, File)

In preparation, Locke has joined the voices urging that the American public take the matter into our own hands and refuse to answer the question, if it is asked. The U.S. Census Bureau is moving ahead and mailing 480,000 test questionnaires nationwide to evaluate how the question affects responses.

Locke’s proposal makes sense as a middle ground.

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The cynical goal of adding the question was to scare noncitizens out of being counted. That likely outcome may be augmented by a considerable number of refusals to participate in the census by citizens disgusted with President Donald Trump’s manipulation of the process. Doing that, however, would play directly into the hands of the partisans who put the question on the form. Its purpose is to produce an undercount of the true population of areas where Trump is disliked. This will enable manipulated political redistricting, and reduce those areas’ federal spending toward health care, highways and education.

The census needs to count how many people live in America. The question of citizenship status is wholly superfluous to this mission, as Locke said with the authority of experience. Although a 1978 law offers the assurance census responses that identify individuals cannot be shared with other federal authorities for 72 years, the administration has broached norms so overzealously on immigration matters that it cannot be trusted to respect this restriction.

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The protest Locke urges carries risks. A law that has not been enforced since the 1970 census attaches a potential $5,000 fine to refusal to answer every question, or for providing false information. The Trump administration could decide to exercise that authority.

However, if this noxious question is foisted upon every American household, a non-answer is a reasonable protest.