The 2020 Cen­sus

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY AARON BLAKE aaron.blake@wash­post.com

will in­clude a ques­tion about cit­i­zen­ship sta­tus, the Com­merce De­part­ment an­nounced.

The once-per-decade U.S. cen­sus will ask about peo­ple’s cit­i­zen­ship sta­tus in 2020, the Com­merce De­part­ment an­nounced late Mon­day night. The move, which came at the re­quest of the Jus­tice De­part­ment, re­in­states a con­tro­ver­sial ques­tion that hasn’t been used on all sur­veys since 1950.

“Af­ter a thor­ough re­view of the le­gal, pro­gram, and pol­icy con­sid­er­a­tions, as well as nu­mer­ous dis­cus­sions with the Cen­sus Bureau lead­er­ship and in­ter­ested stake­hold­ers,” Com­merce Sec­re­tary Wil­bur Ross wrote, “I have de­ter­mined that re­in­state­ment of a cit­i­zen­ship ques­tion on the 2020 de­cen­nial cen­sus is nec­es­sary to pro­vide com­plete and ac­cu­rate data in re­sponse to the DOJ re­quest.”

The de­ci­sion car­ries po­ten­tially ma­jor po­lit­i­cal ram­i­fi­ca­tions — most no­tably for Repub­li­cans’ abil­ity to ger­ry­man­der Democrats into the mi­nor­ity for years to come.

Repub­li­cans al­ready have a sig­nif­i­cant edge on con­gres­sional and state leg­isla­tive maps, be­cause of how the na­tion’s pop­u­la­tion is dis­trib­uted and be­cause the GOP earned the power to re­draw lots of the maps af­ter the 2010 Cen­sus. This de­ci­sion could sig­nif­i­cantly in­crease their ad­van­tages for two rea­sons:

It might dis­suade nonci­t­i­zens from par­tic­i­pat­ing in the cen­sus, thereby di­lut­ing the po­lit­i­cal power of the (mostly ur­ban and Demo­cratic) ar­eas where they live.

And it would hand Repub­li­cans a new tool in re­draw­ing dis­tricts even more in their fa­vor.

The prospect of un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants not fill­ing out cen­sus forms is the most ob­vi­ous po­ten­tial down­side. “This will hurt ac­cu­racy in the com­mu­ni­ties where it is al­ready hard to con­vince peo­ple to fill out cen­sus forms,” said Daniel Wein­berg, the as­sis­tant di­rec­tor of the 2010 Cen­sus. He is against the move.

But the sec­ond pos­si­bil­ity has been per­co­lat­ing for a while, ever since the Supreme Court’s de­ci­sion in Even­wel v. Ab­bott.

In its 2016 rul­ing in the case, the court unan­i­mously de­cided that the “one per­son, one vote” stan­dard does not re­quire states to draw leg­isla­tive dis­tricts based on the vot­ing-el­i­gi­ble pop­u­la­tion — that is, with­out in­clud­ing nonci­t­i­zens and chil­dren. That was a win for Democrats. But the court did not pro­hibit states from draw­ing leg­isla­tive dis­tricts by that stan­dard, and Jus­tice Samuel A. Al­ito Jr. sug­gested that would be a fu­ture ques­tion for the court to de­cide.

To be pre­cise, fed­eral courts have long ruled that con­gres­sional dis­tricts must use to­tal pop­u­la­tion, so this is not about them — at least not di­rectly. At is­sue is whether state leg­isla­tive dis­tricts could be drawn based on vot­ing-el­i­gi­ble pop­u­la­tion.

Repub­li­cans’ dom­i­na­tion of state leg­is­la­tures gives them the power to draw fa­vor­able con­gres­sional maps. So al­low­ing Repub­li­cans to draw more fa­vor­able state leg­isla­tive maps gen­er­ally means more Repub­li­cans in leg­is­la­tures, the abil­ity to draw friend­lier con­gres­sional maps — and a po­ten­tially more re­silient GOP ma­jor­ity.

Al­ito’s ques­tion was in the realm of the hy­po­thet­i­cal at the time. That is be­cause it was im­pos­si­ble to use that vot­ing-el­i­gi­ble method, given that there was no ac­cu­rate cen­sus block data that in­cluded cit­i­zen­ship. With this ques­tion added, it can sup­ply that data.

That could have a ma­jor im­pact in cer­tain ar­eas. De­mog­ra­pher An­drew Bev­eridge es­ti­mated in 2016 that this would help Repub­li­cans pick up sev­eral leg­isla­tive seats in states such as Texas, Cal­i­for­nia, Florida and New York.

Re­dis­trict­ing is a game of inches, where small shifts can de­ter­mine who con­trols the draw­ing of maps that will last a decade. For a Repub­li­can Party that has dom­i­nated that game in re­cent years, a few more inches would be pretty sig­nif­i­cant.

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