The Census Should Ask About Citizenship
The Justice Department has asked the Census Bureau to include a question about citizenship status in the 2020 decennial census—a question absent from the complete census since 1950. The request ignited a firestorm of protest from Democratic lawmakers, liberal activists and left-leaning journalists. The worry is a political one—that the question would deter illegal aliens from returning their census forms, leading to undercounts in states like California and New York, which have large numbers of illegal residents. That in turn could reduce those states’ apportionment of House seats and electoral votes.
Another concern is that new citizenship data could affect state legislative redistricting. There is speculation that some red states will draw districts equalized on their citizen population, rather than their total population, disadvantaging Democrats. While the Constitution requires U.S. House districts to be drawn using total population, the legality of districting based on the count of citizens or eligible votes is unsettled after the Supreme Court declined to address it in Evenwel v. Abbott (2016).
The Justice Department’s rationale, meanwhile, is that it needs more data to enforce the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The department asserts that under Section 2 of the act, adjudicating any legal challenge to a redistricting plan alleging dilution of a racial or ethnic group’s votes requires detailed data about voting-age citizens as well as race and ethnicity. Today the only source for this kind of citizenship data is the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, which replaced the old “long form” sampling, abandoned after the 2000 census, and currently samples some 3.5 million households a year. The Justice Department thinks this is insufficiently precise.
Who’s right? In the Evenwel case, the plaintiffs sought to compel Texas to draw its Senate districts based on citizen rather than total population. In a friend-of-the-court brief four former census directors, who served under administrations of both parties, sided with Texas on the grounds that “the geographic areas at which such estimates are available carry large error margins because of the small sample sizes,” and therefore the ACS is “an inappropriate source of data to support a constitutional rule requiring states to create districts with equal numbers of voting age citizens.”
The justices rejected such a rule, holding that states may draw districts based on total population and reserving the question of whether they must do so. But if the ACS is inadequate for the purpose of drawing districts, it’s hard to see how it could be sufficient for evaluating them under the Voting Rights Act.
Apart from the political questions, is asking about citizenship a good idea? In a fact sheetabout the ACS, the Census Bureau says it is: “We ask about place of birth, citizenship, and year of entry to provide statistics about citizens and the foreign-born population. These statistics are essential for agencies and policy makers setting and evaluating immigration policies and laws, understanding how different immigrant groups are assimilated, and monitoring against discrimination. These statistics are also used to tailor services to accommodate cultural differences.”
This question must be resolved by April, two years before the census is conducted, and any census questions must have the approval of Congress. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross ought to say yes to the Justice Department and encourage lawmakers to do the same.
Mr. Blum, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is president of the Project on Fair Representation.