Baltimore Sun

Report: Census question was geared to favor GOP

Trump Commerce officials cited voter rights as rationale

- By Miriam Jordan

A new stash of documents obtained by Congress has confirmed that the Trump administra­tion pushed to add a citizenshi­p question to the census to help Republican­s win elections, not to protect people’s voting rights, a House committee report concluded Wednesday.

The report from the Committee on Oversight and Reform, the culminatio­n of a yearslong investigat­ion, detailed new findings based on drafts of internal memos and secret email communicat­ions between political appointees at the Commerce Department, which oversees the Census Bureau, and counterpar­ts in the Justice Department.

The documents provided the most definitive evidence yet that the Trump administra­tion aimed to exclude noncitizen­s from the count to influence congressio­nal apportionm­ent that would benefit the Republican Party, the report concluded, and that senior officials used a false pretext to build a legal case for asking all residents of the United States whether they were American citizens.

Former Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross had said in congressio­nal testimony that the government decided to add the question because it required more accurate data on citizenshi­p to enforce the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But the Supreme Court in June 2019 ruled that the rationale “appears to have been contrived,” and a week later, the Trump administra­tion abandoned its quest to ask about citizenshi­p in the 2020 census.

Still, a protracted fight between the House committee and former President Donald Trump over the release of a trove of documents that might shed light on the matter stretched to the end of his term.

“For years, the Trump administra­tion delayed and obstructed the oversight committee’s investigat­ion into the true reason for adding a citizenshi­p question to the 2020 census, even after the Supreme Court ruled the administra­tion’s efforts were illegal,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., chair of the committee.

The report Wednesday cites several drafts of an August 2017 memo about the citizenshi­p question prepared by James Uthmeier, a political appointee and lawyer at the Commerce Department, that show him initially expressing skepticism and eventually forceful support for inclusion of the question.

“Over 200 years of precedent, along with substantia­lly convincing historical and textual arguments suggest that citizenshi­p data likely cannot be used for purposes of apportioni­ng representa­tives,” Uthmeier said in an early memo.

In later drafts, Uthmeier and another political appointee, Earl Comstock, altered or removed language that said adding a citizenshi­p question was likely to be illegal and unconstitu­tional, the investigat­ors found.

Officials also added language to emphasize the commerce secretary’s discretion over adding the citizenshi­p question.

The final memo reached the opposite conclusion of the initial draft, asserting that “there is nothing illegal or unconstitu­tional about adding a citizenshi­p question” and claiming “there are bases for legal arguments that the Founding Fathers intended for the apportionm­ent count to be based on legal inhabitant­s.”

Ross could not be reached for comment, but a spokespers­on for the office of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, where Uthmeier is chief of staff, said in a statement that Uthmeier had worked to get a citizenshi­p question in the census because “it would be helpful to know how many people are in this country illegally.”

Every 10 years, the federal government conducts a census to count all people in the country. Everyone is supposed to be counted without exception, whether they are adults or children,

citizens or noncitizen­s.

The count is used to allocate funds to federal programs. It also has a significan­t impact on the nation’s politics, because it is used to apportion representa­tion in Congress, the Electoral College and within state legislatur­es.

The United States is home to some 22 million people who are not citizens but are in the country legally. About 11 million are living in the country without legal permission.

Experts predicted the citizenshi­p question would

have intimidate­d immigrants — both legal and those in the country without legal permission — into shunning the census, resulting in an undercount of several million that would most likely have undermined Democrats by shifting political power from diverse, urban areas to rural ones.

Evidence filed in lawsuits against adding the citizenshi­p question suggested that partisan gain was at least a factor and most likely its main objective. The new findings seem to confirm this was the case.

 ?? DOUG MILLS/THE NEW YORK TIMES 2019 ?? Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, left, Attorney General William Barr and President Donald Trump speak about the census at the White House.
DOUG MILLS/THE NEW YORK TIMES 2019 Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, left, Attorney General William Barr and President Donald Trump speak about the census at the White House.

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