The Washington Post

Making sure we all count

The Trump administra­tion’s assault on the census must not happen again.


THE TRUMP administra­tion engaged in a years-long, multiprong­ed effort to sabotage the U.S. census, largely centered on adding a question on citizenshi­p to the 2020 count. A new report, released last week by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, paints a grim picture of what was happening behind the scenes.

A draft of an August 2017 memo, prepared by a political appointee in the Commerce Department, examined the idea of using citizenshi­p data for apportioni­ng seats in the House of Representa­tives, concluding it would likely be unconstitu­tional. Later versions omitted that language and came down in favor of including the question.

The newly released documents undercut the Trump administra­tion’s repeated claims that the citizenshi­p question had nothing to do with apportionm­ent. The Constituti­on plainly states: “Representa­tives shall be apportione­d among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State.”

At the time, then- Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and other officials offered various unconvinci­ng justificat­ions for adding the question, most frequently that it would help enforce the Voting Rights Act. The Supreme Court blocked the move, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. calling the rationale “contrived.” The House report reinforces that conclusion.

The census is a crucial tool, used not only for apportionm­ent and redistrict­ing, but also for allocating approximat­ely $1.5 trillion in annual federal aid to states and localities. Experts warned that a citizenshi­p question would frighten immigrants and lead to the undercount­ing of minority communitie­s.

Though the question was ultimately not included, the lengthy and public battle over it appears to have been enough: The Census Bureau reported that Black, Hispanic and Native Americans were undercount­ed at higher levels in 2020 compared with 2010 — Hispanics by a statistica­lly significan­t amount — while White and Asian Americans were overcounte­d. Never mind that this might have backfired on Republican­s, with the bureau reporting it significan­tly undercount­ed population­s in Florida and Texas — red states with large minority communitie­s — and overcounte­d population­s in blue states such as Rhode Island and Minnesota. The accuracy of the census depends in no small part on its credibilit­y, which has been severely damaged.

The next census is in 2030, but — given the scale of the undertakin­g and importance of the results — Congress should work quickly to insulate it from political interferen­ce. A bill recently introduced by Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), chairwoman of the House Oversight Committee, would do just that. The Ensuring a Fair and Accurate Census Act would restrict the number of political appointees at the Census Bureau, bar the removal of a bureau director without just cause and require new questions to be submitted to Congress ahead of time. It would also mandate new questions be “researched, tested and certified” by the commerce secretary and “evaluated by the Government Accountabi­lity Office.”

Though it was not able to implement its most drastic plans, the Trump administra­tion’s assault on the integrity of the census should be an urgent warning. Too much rests on the decennial count to allow it to be exploited for partisan gain.


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