Editorial: The census is in trouble. So is democracy
If the 2020 census isn’t in a state of crisis, it is awfully close. The coronavirus pandemic, of course, has made pretty much everything about contemporary life in America a lot more difficult. But the problems confronting the 2020 census also have a significant political component, from the Trump administration’s effort to scare off immigrant participation by adding a question about citizenship status, through the recent order to speed up the conclusion of the count — even though the agency had asked Congress in April to extend its reporting deadline because of pandemic-related delays.
Administration officials try to be reassuring in their public pronouncements about how well they are doing, but there isn’t much in which the public can have faith. More than a quarter of the households remain uncounted, and by definition those are the folks hardest to reach. Then there are the unknown impacts from raging wildfires here in California and elsewhere in the West, hurricanes in the Gulf states and whatever other natural calamities might unfold over the next month.
Census experts, including former directors, warn that undercounts are likely and that the results of the constitutionally mandated tally may be too unreliable to be used for its prime purpose: reapportioning 435 seats in the House of Representatives among the states (California is projected to lose a seat for the first time in state history).
In fact, Kenneth Prewitt, who oversaw the 2000 census, told a conference this summer that the current count has endured more political interference “than any other census in our history” and that it “has certainly led to a decline in the confidence in the Census Bureau.” As for the count itself, Prewitt said, “if the current situation holds, I do not expect a census of a quality that the Census Bureau will even want to release the data…. We’re in for a brutal battle over the next two or three months.”
So what to do? If the critics’ worries prove out and there are massive undercounts in immigrant-heavy and low-income areas, the ensuing reapportionment will likely tilt in favor of the Republicans who have pursued policies seemingly designed to, at a minimum, undermine the census takers. Remember, the push to add the citizenship question arose from a Republican political operative, Thomas B. Hofeller, who specialized in gerrymandering, and among Commerce Department officials who urged the Justice Department to ask for the question under the pretext that it was needed to enforce the Voting Rights Act. The U.S. Supreme Court saw through that charade and stripped the question from the census.
After that ruling, President Trump last year ordered federal departments to scour records to help determine “the number of citizens and non-citizens in the country” to influence policy decisions. Last month he issued a murky “Memorandum on Excluding Illegal Aliens From the Apportionment Base Following the 2020 Census” that states, “For the purpose of the reapportionment of Representatives following the 2020 census, it is the policy of the United States to exclude from the apportionment base aliens who are not in a lawful immigration status ... to the maximum extent feasible and consistent with the discretion delegated to the executive branch.” But that discretion is limited: The census counts everyone living in the U.S. (with a few exceptions such as for diplomats), regardless of immigration status, and the 14th Amendment requires seats to be apportioned based on that full count.
Only once in U.S. history has the decennial census not been used to reapportion House seats among the states. That was in 1920, in the wake of World War I and at the fulcrum point of the nation’s shift from a primarily agrarian population to an urban one — driven in part by the Great Migration of southern Blacks and a surge of southern European immigrants to northern cities. The ensuing urban-rural political battle led to stasis, and Congress never did get around to reallocating its seats based on the 1920 census. That preserved the political power of rural and southern regions until after the 1930 census.
Skipping the 1920 reapportionment was a failure by Congress to live up to a fundamental responsibility. The nation needs this current Congress — and the one that will take over in January and receive the apportionment numbers — to fulfill their responsibility to ensure the 2020 census is as accurate as possible, and that apportionment of future House seats isn’t skewed by the nefarious tactics of the Trump administration. The nation must guard whatever integrity our shambled political processes have left against further damage from a president so willing to injure the democracy that elected him.
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