Today, the Supreme Court blocked a crucial citizenship question from being added to the 2020 U.S. census—a question President Trump couldn’t help but chime in on.
“Seems totally ridiculous that our government, and indeed Country, cannot ask a basic question of Citizenship in a very expensive, detailed and important Census, in this case for 2020,” he tweeted. “I have asked the lawyers if they can delay the Census, no matter how long, until the United States Supreme Court is given additional information from which it can make a final and decisive decision on this very critical matter.”
While the question remains blocked for now, we spoke to Terri Ann Lowenthal, the former staff director of the Subcommittee on Census and Population from 1987 to 1994, about the impact of this question and the greater significance of citizenship that might forever change our political landscape.
What exactly is the proposed change to the census?
It’s fairly simple: a question that asks participants whether they’re a citizen. This is one among several planned questions by the Census Bureau, including existing questions relating to age, sex, race, home ownership, and relationship status.
“It was added in haste and without regard to the traditional process of determining questions,” Lowenthal said over the phone. “I think the decision to add the question, if it’s allowed to stand, really threatens the success of the 2020 census.”
What’s so wrong with asking about citizenship status?
A lot of things: mainly that it has serious potential to discourage an estimated 6.5 million people from participating, thereby questioning the value of the census altogether. According to Lowenthal, skepticism of the Trump administration is the reason people might be discouraged to take part.
“It’s not surprising that many people and especially immigrants, regardless of their legal status, probably don’t trust this administration to follow the law and that’s because of the president’s harsh immigration policies,” she said over the phone. “It’s understandable that many immigrants are fearful that this administration might circumvent the law and get its hands on census data and use it to harm people, or deport people or take away their benefits.”
Wait, so Trump doesn’t automatically have access to my census information?
No—at least not at this moment. According to Lowenthal, this information is kept private within the Census Bureau.
“By law, the Census Bureau cannot share any personal census responses or information with any other agency of government at any level or court of law or administrative court or private entity for any purpose,” she said. “And further, no other government agency or court of law may use personal census data, were they somehow able to get their hands on it, to harm any individual—and that includes for law enforcement purposes of any kind.” Still, this wouldn’t be the first time Trump has allegedly skirted the law to his own benefit.
Will this impact the 2020 election?
Not directly, no, but you’ll need some context. After the census, states use their new population numbers to re-draw congressional districts and determine the reapportionment of seats in Congress; in other words, seats can change as a result of a new count. As far as the 2020 election goes, this will not impact congressional seats.
“We won’t even have the initial census numbers until sometime in late December 2020, after the election,” Lowenthal said. “The detailed numbers that are sent to the states for redistricting purposes, by law, must be sent to the states by one year after [the] census date, April 1, 2021.” That said, this will make a major difference come 2022 when the count is likely final and districts are re-drawn.
Okay cool, so I don’t have to worry about it then?
Well, yes, you do. A citizenship question might very well change everything we know about the political landscape as it stands. The New York Times reports that the absence of 6.5 million surveyed could significantly reduce Democratic representation by the loss of congressional seats and risk the loss of federal money in states like Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, New York, and Texas.
Worse, we’ll be stuck with it for a while with no apparent way out. “Once the census is finished and the numbers are published, we have to live with those numbers for the next decade.”
What happens next?
While the Supreme Court has blocked the question from being added to the census for now (and in a surprising 5-4 vote), this doesn’t mean it won’t appear on the census just yet. The Supreme Court has asked the Trump Administration to provide evidence for the question’s significance on the census and by June 30, when census materials will begin printing (though this deadline may not be final and could even be extended to October).
Accordingly, Trump has reportedly asked lawyers to delay the census. For obvious reasons, this could create logistical issues with the census scheduled to go out in March. For now, we’ll have to wait and see how Trump manages to circumvent the actions of the Supreme Court.
This story was published on 4/23/19 and updated on 6/27/19 with new information following the Supreme Court’s ruling.
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