Census citizenship question: Practical or partisan?

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Speed read

What's happening: The Founding Fathers laid out in the Constitution what seems like a straightforward task: Every 10 years, the government must count the number of people living in the United States for a national census. How to conduct that task, however, has been a source of intense debate since the beginning.

The latest fight stems from the Trump administration's desire to add a question to the 2020 census form asking respondents if they are U.S. citizens. It has been nearly 70 years since the census has considered citizenship.

Although it may seem like a boring bureaucratic issue, the census is extremely important. Its count dictates representation in state and federal governments, how much federal funding each state gets and how legislative districts are drawn. The census counts the total number of residents living in a given area, both citizens and noncitizens.

Why there's debate: The administration says a citizenship question will help protect the Voting Rights Act, but critics say the move is politically motivated.

Asking about citizenship, they argue, is a deliberate attempt to disadvantage Latinos and Democrats. They say people in immigrant communities might refuse to participate out of fear that the information will be used to target them or people they know for deportation. This would lead to an undercount of the population in mostly Democratic-leaning parts of the country. As a result, those areas would get fewer elected representatives and federal funding.

Those beliefs were bolstered by documents found on the hard drive of a deceased Republican operative, Thomas Hofeller, who played a role in putting the citizenship question to the test. The question would boost the voting power of "Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites,” according to a memo he sent to the Justice Department.

What's next: On Monday, the House Oversight Committee took steps toward holding Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt of Congress for defying subpoenas for documents related to the decision to put the question on the census.

In January, a federal judge ruled that the question was unlawful. The case has since moved to the Supreme Court. A ruling may come as early as this month. The census is set to begin on April 1, 2020.


The question would make the census count inaccurate

"The citizenship question would reduce response rates in immigrant communities, making the census less accurate and the Voting Rights Act harder to enforce." — Leah Litman, Los Angeles Times

The question is intended to reduce the power of Hispanic voters

"It is always easier to find holes in the boat and to punch new ones, than to devise methods for plugging them and keeping everything afloat. One such weakness is the Census, which this administration has sought to weaponize as an undocumented immigrant address book for ICE and, as a consequence, a way to erode Hispanic and Latinx influence at the ballot box." — Jamil Smith, Rolling Stone

Accurate citizenship data is needed for running the country

"The question of who is a citizen and who is not is at the foundation of what makes a nation. As a practical matter, however, knowing who is a citizen and who isn’t shapes the way policies get made and resources get allocated." — Ben Boychuk, Sacramento Bee

The question would weaken the political power of blue states

"It’s long been obvious that the Trump administration wants to turn the 2020 Census into a political weapon, inserting a question on citizenship to intimidate immigrants from being counted, thereby depressing the clout of diverse, left-leaning states like California and New York." — Editorial, New York Daily News

Protecting undocumented residents is not a fair reason to leave out the question

"Of course we should ask the question. Only those who are trying to help illegals hide in plain sight would have any reason to oppose this effort." — Ted Diadiun, Cleveland Plain Dealer

An inaccurate count would hurt businesses that rely on census data

"This data that comes out of the census is not just some bureaucratic government data that sits in a vault somewhere that no one sees. It's actually data that affects our day-to-day lives." — Jessica Herrera-Flanigan, Univision executive vice president, to NPR

The ruling could signal an end to a politically independent Supreme Court

"This is looking less and less like an ideological battle between conservative and liberal judges and more like a Supreme Court controlled by partisan politicians in robes. And the census ruling could prove it." — Jessica Levinson, NBC News

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