The Citizenship Question
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.