An increasingly political fight over the census threatens to undermine what has long been a nonpartisan and highly successful function of American government.
But the Trump administration’s push to include a controversial citizenship question in the 2020 census is not the first time the decennial population count has been viewed as a partisan weapon. A century ago, anger over a changing America sent Congress into a decade-long tug-of-war for political power.
Many of the themes reflected in the fight over the 1920 census and the subsequent reapportionment of seats in Congress echo today: A divide between the political interests of urban and rural America, a deep-seated fear of immigrants who did not look like the majority, the growing power of minority voters at the expense of whites and even cries of fake news.
As American soldiers returned home from World War I, the 1920 census showed just how much America’s agrarian origins had changed. For the first time, more people lived in urban areas than in rural communities.
Members of Congress who represented rural districts feared the growing political power of America’s cities, which would come directly at their own expense. Some refused to accept the accuracy of the count, which for the first time enumerated people where they lived, rather than where census takers had found them.
“The controversy over the results broke out as soon as the Census Bureau reported the numbers and it became clear that urban areas, and therefore areas that were home to immigrants and city people, had now become the majority for the first time in history,” said Margo Anderson, a historian at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and author of “The American Census: A Social History.”
“The country [had] always been rural, so the switch to an urban nation seemed to violate all sorts of understandings of the nature of society,” Anderson said. “It meant that there would be a shifting of power to areas that were considered problematic at the time by the declining rural population.”
The wave of immigrants coming through American ports also changed substantially. Earlier immigrants had come from Northern and Western European countries, but the new influx brought more eastern Europeans, Italians and Jews.
“Back then, people were concerned about a lot of Eastern and Southern Europeans coming to the U.S.,” said William Frey, a demographer and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “They were almost treated as somewhat of a different race than Northern Europeans and Western Europeans.”
Amid concerns over lost political power and the more diverse group of immigrants coming to the U.S., Congress had much more power over reapportionment than it does today.
And while Congress had adapted to earlier population growth by increasing the size of the House, that was no longer an option. Lawmakers had passed a law in 1911 capping the number of House seats at 435, in part, Anderson said, because the House chamber was getting too crowded.
That meant, for the first time, some states would lose seats and others would gain.
When the official population numbers came out in 1921, the House and Senate could not agree on how to reapportion seats. Republicans controlled Congress, but they found willing allies among Southern Democrats who feared losing their own political power — both to more populous Northern states and to African Americans, clustered in Southern cities, who merited their own power.
For the first time in American history, Congress was unable to comply with its constitutional mandate to reapportion political power.
“Congress’s failure to accept the apportionment following the 1920 census certainly triggered a constitutional crisis in the sense that the Constitution’s mandate for reapportionment of seats in the House based on the census was not met,” said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a census expert and former staff director of the House census oversight subcommittee.
As the decade wore on, compromise after compromise failed. In states like New York, urban congressional districts ballooned to as many as 700,000 residents — the average amount that congressional districts hold today. Rural districts far upstate had as few as 90,000 residents.
But Congress, still disproportionately representing conservative rural — and predominantly white — parts of the country, did agree on one thing: stricter immigration controls that vastly reduced the number of non-Nordic people permitted to enter the United States.
The dispute was resolved in 1929, when President Hoover — a former Commerce secretary — called Congress into special session. The House and Senate passed the Reapportionment and Census Act, making future reapportionment automatic, rather than leaving it in the hands of Congress.
That law contained a convoluted compromise that would gum up the American legal system for almost half a century. It did not include any language requiring districts be drawn in a compact manner or that districts in the same state have roughly the same population.
In one of the first cases challenging the redistricting process, the Supreme Court ruled in 1946 against a Chicago man who wanted to force Illinois to redraw district maps that had been in effect since 1901, which gave far more power to rural regions than to the booming metropolis on Lake Michigan.
It wasn’t until 1962 that the Supreme Court ruled redistricting questions were within the purview of the federal judiciary. That case, Baker v. Carr, arose from Tennessee, which elected legislators under the same maps they had used since 1901. Two years later, the court ruled in two other redistricting-related cases that electoral districts must have relatively equal populations, a principle known as one man, one vote.
The fight over district lines after each census shows just how powerful a tool the decennial count can be in distributing — or consolidating — power, Anderson said.
“The census itself shifts political power. That’s what the framers intended,” she said. “In a dynamic society, which they knew the new American state was, you had to set up not only initial rules, but you had to modify that as society changed.”
This year, census watchers worry that the Trump administration’s efforts to add a citizenship question will lead to another type of imbalanced political power. If a significant number of residents — particularly undocumented immigrants — do not answer the census or refuse follow-up efforts to count them, it could give whiter, less diverse states a disproportionate amount of power in Congress.
“We now have a crisis of the current administration’s own making that threatens the success and accuracy of the 2020 census,” Lowenthal said. “It is distinct from 1920 in that this administration is using the census process itself to achieve political and even partisan goals.”
The Supreme Court ruled last month that the Census Bureau could not include a citizenship question on next year’s form because of the arbitrary nature in which the Commerce Department had gone about adding it.
But the Trump administration has pledged to renew its fight. Attorney General William BarrBill BarrJan. 6 panel recommends contempt charges for Trump DOJ official Appeals court questions Biden DOJ stance on Trump obstruction memo Michael Cohen officially released from prison sentence MORE said this week that he had found a way to legally include the question, though he offered no details.
“Today, I like to think we’re different, but in some ways, [the citizenship question] brings up the same kind of issue” as in 1920, Frey said.