Census citizenship question will help voting rights enforcement

Census citizenship question will help voting rights enforcement
© Greg Nash

The latest disconnect between Washington elites and mainstream Americans involves Trump administration plans to ask a question about citizenship in the 2020 census. The simple question — “are you a citizen?” — previously appeared on the census, but renewing it in 2020 has triggered hysteria inside the beltway. Adding to the hysteria is the fact than a former adviser to President TrumpDonald John TrumpCensus Bureau intends to wrap up count on Oct. 5 despite judge's order Top House Republican calls for probe of source of NYT Trump tax documents New Yorkers report receiving ballots with wrong name, voter addresses MORE voiced support for the idea to Commerce Secretary Wilbur RossWilbur Louis RossCensus Bureau intends to wrap up count on Oct. 5 despite judge's order Trump admin asks Supreme Court to fast-track excluding people in U.S. illegally from census Trump 'very happy' to allow TikTok to operate in US if security concerns resolved MORE. That the adviser happens to be named Steve BannonStephen (Steve) Kevin BannonDemocrats' cowardice must end: It's time to teach the GOP a lesson Juan Williams: Swamp creature at the White House Engineers say privately funded border wall is poorly constructed and set to fail: report MORE sends the elites into a frenzied resistance we haven’t seen since, well, the Saturday that Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by JobsOhio - Trump's tax return bombshell Juan Williams: Trump's Supreme Court power grab Manchin opposes adding justices to the court MORE was confirmed.


At issue is the decision to add a census question about whether the respondent is an American citizen. This is the same survey that recently asked how many flush toilets you have in your house, yet activists find the citizenship question too intrusive. It is so intrusive to them that the whole matter goes to trial in a federal courtroom on November 5 in New York City. In the meantime, the Supreme Court has been asked to block portions of the lawsuit against the citizenship question. Should the court, with Justice Kavanaugh in the majority, greenlight the citizenship question, it might prompt hysterics beyond our wildest imagination. Bannon, Kavanaugh, and citizenship, oh my.

The Hill recently reported proto president Senator Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisHarris says she hasn't 'made a plan one way or another' on meeting Supreme Court nominee Compromise, yes — but how? A pre-debate suggestion Biden must clarify his stance on energy for swing voters MORE (D-Calif.) warned that the Trump administration’s reinstatement of a citizenship question would “weaponize” the 2020 census. Harris is right in a way, as collecting citizenship data would enable the Justice Department to better enforce and weaponize the Voting Rights Act, particularly in smaller jurisdictions where robust citizenship data have never been available.

I know this because when I was at the Justice Department enforcing the Voting Rights Act, I brought cases where citizenship data would have bolstered that law. I have filed a brief with the federal court detailing how citizenship data strengthens enforcement of this important civil rights law. It details the many instances in the past where the Justice Department explicitly cited citizenship population in Voting Rights Act enforcement. Unfortunately, the Justice Department briefing, so far, has failed to press the point in court that the Trump administration is making in public.

Pick any Voting Rights Act case brought by the Justice Department, and you’ll see on the face of the complaints that the Justice Department relies on citizenship data to draw a sample minority legislative district. An objective observer will also see a trend that smaller jurisdictions across the country get overlooked for Voting Rights Act enforcement.

Lightly populated jurisdictions are overlooked because the existing census doesn’t capture robust citizenship data. I litigated a rare exception when I was at the Justice Department. Lake Park, a small town in Florida, was 48 percent black, according to the 2000 census, yet it never yielded a single black city council member in its history. Because of its size, citizenship data was lacking, and a large Haitian population also existed in Lake Park. The case would have been stronger had data been available.

There are many towns, counties and school boards on the margins where a lack of citizenship data takes them off the list of places effectively protected by the Voting Rights Act when it comes to redistricting. The voting rights alarmism that has become so familiar falls silent when it involves extending protections to Americans who live in smaller jurisdictions with larger alien populations. The lack of a citizenship question doesn’t just impair voting rights enforcement in small towns.

Even in the bigger cities, the Justice Department is stuck relying on citizenship “estimates” to determine if the Voting Rights Act is being violated. Not asking the citizenship question on the census has eroded African American political clout in places like Los Angeles. For decades, black Los Angeles residents were demographically squeezed out of local government by a growing Hispanic population of mixed citizenship.

Over time, Hispanic populations that were a mix of both citizens and aliens had the population numbers when it came to drawing district lines. A black majority-minority district might require a given population of residents, almost all citizens, while a Hispanic district next door would have the same total population, but a smaller population of citizens. Blacks ended up being the losers here because line drawers didn’t have and didn’t use the best citizenship data from the census.

The Trump administration decision to ask about citizenship on the 2020 census will help Justice Department to enforce the Voting Rights Act. Asking the question on the census if someone living in the United States is a citizen makes sense to everyone except beltway elites and those people in power concerned about their own political survival.

J. Christian Adams is president and general counsel for the Public Interest Legal Foundation and a former lawyer at the U.S. Department of Justice. He also served on the Presidential Advisory Commission for Election Integrity.