Mischief. That’s what the Trump Administration is up to with its insistence on asking respondents to the decennial census questionnaire if they are citizens of the United States. It’s mischievous because the US Census Bureau already collects that information in the enormous, rolling, American Community Survey (ACA) which is on-going every day of every year. Given that the government already collects citizenship information, one might ask why the Administration also wants to inject this question into the constitutionally-required decennial census.
Here’s why. The decennial census is used by the states to determine what changes, if any, are to be made in the number or the distribution of congressional districts throughout the United States. In other words, the census determines what congressional redistricting, if any, is to take place in the country. It is used, periodically, to redraw the map of congressional districts. The decennial census can, and often does, change the number of congressional districts and, therefore, the number of Representatives that comprise the US House of Representatives.
So, what exactly, is mischievous about demanding a citizenship question on the census questionnaire?
A mischievous memo. Thomas Hofeller a Republican gerrymandering specialist, now deceased, penned a report urging the Administration to include such a question. It would have the effect of suppressing responses from immigrants residing in the United States, nearly all of whom could be presumed to lean heavily Democratic. The results would also be used, Hofeller believed, to argue that congressional districts should be based on the number of citizens residing in each district and not the number of residents residing in each district. Hofeller believed such a question would favor Republican candidates for office. But working residents of the United States pay taxes whether they are citizens or not, and we Americans have a long-standing and strongly held view that taxation without representation is fundamentally wrong. Hofeller argued that the citizenship question would clearly favor Republican gerrymandering efforts. Is anyone so jaded that they would urge manipulating the census process for political gain? We jest of course.
What makes this ruse so pernicious is that Article One of the US Constitution is unambiguous regarding the need to count everyone and not just citizens. The accurate count of everyone who calls America home largely determines how federal funds are proportioned back to the States as well as how voting districts are created (and eliminated) with the passage of time.
Specifically, Article 1, Section 2 states, “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, (and) three fifths of all other Persons (slaves)…”
Yes, even slaves were to be counted, but only as three fifths of a person. Ironically, the notorious three fifths provision was insisted upon by the northern non-slave states. The southern, slave-holding states wanted their slaves to be counted as whole (non-voting) persons in order to get more federal funds and more seats in Congress. Many people mistakenly believe that the onerous three fifths provision was a racist, southern states requirement. Nope, it was the northern, free states that argued for the three fifths rule.
Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross argued, disingenuously we think, for the citizenship question to be included in the census to assist in enforcing the Voting Rights Act. We doubt that was his motive at all. In fact, the language Ross used to support the Administration’s position was, in part, lifted from the Republican Gerrymandering strategist Thomas Hofeller’s report.
President Trump has stated that he is considering using an Executive Order to force the citizenship question into the census survey. That would be a remarkable lapse of presidential judgment…well, maybe not so remarkable. Even Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts opined that the Commerce Department provided a “pretextual reason” for wanting the citizenship question that was merely “a distraction,” in violation of the legal requirement that agencies disclose the true reasons behind their decisions.
The census has precluded the citizenship question for the last seventy years, and, today, the on-going, American Community Survey routinely captures citizenship information in a manner that isn’t tied to congressional apportionment or any other partisan objective. We should keep it that way.