The United States Constitution requires a census every 10 years. While it might seem a trivial matter, the data is critical: it determines how many seats each state receives in the House of Representative and also guides the distribution of federal funds. There are also concerns that the Trump administration is trying to weaponize the upcoming census to give Republicans an advantage. The administration claims this is nonsense; they claim to want the controversial citizenship question added for benign reasons. This matter raises a host of issues and is well worth considering.
It is worth noting that the citizenship question was last included on the census for all households in 1950 but some census forms and other similar surveys do still include the question. As such, it can be obviously be argued that there is a precedent for including the question again and that doing so would not be completely unusual. It would just be something that had not been done since 1950. Of course, the fact that it has been done before neither shows nor disproves that including it now would be a good idea. In this case, whether it is a good idea or not is a matter of the purpose of the census.
As the Constitution notes, the main purpose of the census is to determine the apportionment of representatives. This requires an accurate count of the population and it is reasonable to hold that anything that impedes an accurate count would be contrary to the purpose of the census. A moral argument can also be made for the importance of an accurate census: if the United States has a principled commitment to the system of representative government, this requires a commitment to ensuring an accurate census. Otherwise the representation will be unjustly distributed. Because I hold to this principle, I have a moral issue with the inclusion of the citizenship question.
It might be wondered why the question should be regarded as an impediment to an accurate survey. Since I am a known Democrat, it might be suspected that I swayed by my ideology. As such, I will turn to a devoted Republican (now deceased) for the evidence that the question would impact the accuracy of the survey.
Thomas Hofeller was a brilliant Republican redistricting strategist who saw and used the power of modern computers to literally change the political landscape. Before his death, he had been pushing for the inclusion of the citizenship question on the census because he believed that doing so would impact participation and provide a structural electoral advantage for “Republicans and non-Hispanic whites.” The Trump administration has denied this intention and has claimed that Hofeller had no role in the matter. Unfortunately for the administrations, Hofeller’s documents have become available and they show that he wrote a key part of a draft Justice Department letter alleging that the question was needed to enforce the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
As a professor, this scenario reminded me of a common occurrence in academics: a student turns in a paper that seems to be someone else’ work and they claim that the word-for-word similarity is mere coincidence. I do not buy that in the classroom and certainly do not buy it coming from the Trump administration.
It could be countered that the Trump administration and Hofeller are truly concerned with the 1965 Voting Rights act and that is the real reason for the question. On the one hand, that does make sense: Hofeller proved skillful at using the act to the advantage of Republicans. On the other hand, the documents make Hofeller’s intent clear: whether the question connects to the act, the question is intended to impact participation to the advantage of “Republican and non-Hispanic whites.” As such, the reasonable inference is that the Trump administration wants the question included to advantage Republicans and they understand it will negatively impact the accuracy of the census.
It might be argued that presenting Hofeller’s documents as evidence is not enough to show that the question would have a negative impact. After all, one could contend that Hofeller and the administration hope it will have that effect. One could contend that it will not. To counter this, I offer the fact that businesses that use census data and need accurate information have pushed back against the administration’s efforts to include the question. After all, their business success depends on accurate data, not data rigged to advantage white Republicans. As such, it seems reasonable to think that the question would have a negative impact on participation and hence should not be included—the census needs to be accurate.
Supporters of the question do advance the argument that it is essential to produce important citizenship data that is essential for some goals of the administration. This, one supposes, is supposed to offset the accuracy problem. However, even the researchers at the Census Bureau have pointed out that the question will result is less accurate and more expensive data than existing government data. As such, this defense is no defense: better, cheaper sources of citizenship data already exist.
Some have advanced arguments based on their view that the census should only cover citizens anyway, that only illegals will be afraid to answer the question and they should not be counter, and so on. After all, they contend, representation and such should be based on citizens.
The easy and obvious reply is to point out that the constitution specifies a count of population and does not specify a count of citizens. Looking back historically, the census counted black slaves as 3/5 of a person so the default is to count everyone, citizen or not. It could be objected that this is wrong and the census should just count citizens—but this is another issue; that is, whether the constitution should be changed to change the census. This can and has been done: obviously the 3/5 person thing was changed. So, those who think that the census should only cover citizens have every legal right to try to amend the Constitution to have their way.
Since the just purpose of the census is to get an accurate count and there are good reasons to believe that the citizenship question would impede participation, it should not be on the census. Again, those who think that the census should only count citizens have every legal right to try to get the Constitution amended to suit them. But until then the citizenship question should be excluded.