The 2020 Census
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.