The U.S. Constitution requires the federal government to conduct a national census every 10 years, a tally that is used to apportion various benefits among the states, including seats in the House of Representatives. It's a difficult task, and a magnet for disputes. The first census, conducted in 1790, was done by federal marshals assigned to visit every home in their judicial district to count the numbers of free white men and white women, other free persons, and slaves. The enumerators came up with 3.9 million people (about the present-day population of the city of Los Angeles) scattered among 13 states and four territorial districts — a total that President George Washington and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, who oversaw the count, complained was too low. So from the very get-go the decennial census has been framed by controversy over its accuracy.
Now the Department of Justice is pushing the Census Bureau to insert a question into the 2020 census asking each person for his or her citizenship status, which would ensure that the next census, too, will be controversial — and more inaccurate.
The Justice Department says it needs the question asked to help it enforce Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which protects against racial discrimination in elections — discrimination against citizens, that is. The Justice Department says it wants a count of voting-age citizens in each legislative district to help it respond when someone brings a complaint about a racial group being underrepresented in a region.
But the decennial census is conducted by trying to contact every household in the country directly. Telling census takers to ask people about their citizenship status could lead those living here without permission to avoid the census out of fear that the information they provide would be used to deport them. Under law that can't happen — the Census Bureau isn't allowed to share the individual details it collects with other government departments for 72 years. But skepticism is understandable among people who rightfully fear the Trump administration is trying to throw them out.
It's also unnecessary. Voting rights advocates say the annual American Community Survey, which includes a citizenship question and is sent to 1 in 38 households, provides sufficient data for Voting Rights Act enforcement.
The Justice Department's request matters primarily because hiding from the census takers can affect representation in government. Court decisions have established that legislative districts must be apportioned based on the number of people who live there, regardless of their legal status. Undercounts in immigrant and ethnic communities could lead to less representation in Congress and state legislatures for those communities, among other problems; in Congress, such undercounts could unfairly skew the balance of power in the House away from urban areas and other regions with large concentrations of migrants.
This has particular significance for California and the other southern border states, as well as New York and Florida, all of which have sizable Latino populations. California and Washington also have sizable Asian populations, one of the fastest-growing immigrant groups in the nation. Advocates argue persuasively that undocumented residents and even those here legally would be less inclined to share personal information with a government they perceive as hostile to them.
It's hard not to see the Justice Department's request as another Republican ploy — Latinos tend to vote for Democrats — to game elections, as the GOP has done in North Carolina, Alabama, Wisconsin and elsewhere with efforts to suppress voting or gerrymander legislative districts to favor Republicans. (Not that Democrats are sinless when it comes to electoral gamesmanship.) But even if the department's leaders' hearts are pure and they genuinely believe they need this data to properly enforce the Voting Rights Act, the benefit would be much less than the cost to the count's reliability. The Census Bureau reported that the 2010 census probably undercounted Latinos by 1.5%. Advocates say that would probably increase if the citizenship question is added to the 2020 list.
It would be good to have an accurate count of those living in the country without permission, rather than relying on estimates as is done now. But the purpose of the census isn't to count citizens, but to count people. If adding a question about citizenship status affects the accuracy of the count, then the Census Bureau should stick to its core mission and not add wrinkles that could imperil the reliability of data so crucial to a fundamental piece of American democracy: congressional representation.