Citizenship question drives uncertainty over 2020 census

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Uncertainly is swirling over whether the Census Bureau will be able to get an accurate population count for the 2020 census, as the agency considers a Department of Justice (DOJ) request to add a controversial question about citizenship status to the census questionnaire.

The stakes are enormously high.

{mosads}Census data is used to redraw House districts, and the number of House seats each state receives also plays a part in determining each state’s number of electoral votes.

Experts say a citizenship question could seriously skew the numbers if people are too frightened to respond.  

Phil Sparks, co-director of The Census Project, said even a small change to the census could have big ramifications on the makeup of Congress and, ultimately, the outcome of elections.

“Its main purpose is for the redistribution, on a timely basis, of political power,” he said. “In the past, the census has had profound political impacts.”

Congress has only rejected the results of a census once. After the 1920 census revealed a major and continuing shift in the population from rural to urban areas, conservatives refused to reapportion House seats.

And analysts say changes are likely in 2020.

Using new population estimates, Virginia-based Election Data Services said in a December study that California is close to losing a congressional seat as a result of the 2020 census.

Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina, Oregon, Montana, Florida and Texas, meanwhile, could all gain seats, according to the study.  

At a public meeting to review the status of the census late last month, Albert Fontenot Jr., the associate director of Decennial Census Programs, said attorneys from the Commerce Department are currently examining the justification for the citizenship data needed by the DOJ.

In the request obtained by ProPublica, the DOJ said it needs the data to better enforce the Voting Rights Act and “its important protections against racial discrimination in voting.”

But given Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s crackdown on illegal immigrants, experts say the question would likely make Latinos, who are already hesitant to answer the questionnaire, even less likely to respond.

“We know that 7 percent of the population are people who are foreign born, but not citizens, which is about 22 million undocumented and documented people,” said William Frey, a senior fellow with the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution.

“Who knows what the motive of DOJ is, but the impact is going to be an undercount in places where you have a lot of Latinos and foreign-born people living.”

Vincent Barabba, who served as director of the Census Bureau during the Nixon and Carter administrations, said citizenship isn’t part of the constitutionally mandated census.

“The Constitution says it will be a census of the inhabitants of the states,” he said. “It doesn’t say it’ll be a census of citizens.”

The agency has to make a decision soon. Deadlines are quickly

By law, the bureau has to provide Congress with the final wording of the census questionnaire by March 31. 

The Justice Department’s request isn’t the only issue threatening the census. The agency is also dealing with a lack of leadership without a director and a delay in additional funding.

Without a long-term spending deal from Congress, the bureau is stuck at its 2017 funding level of $754 million for the 2020 census. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross originally asked for $800 million for 2018, but then went back and asked Congress to add another $187 million. 

The continuing resolution Congress passed to fund the government through Feb. 8 included a provision that allows the bureau to spend its allotted money at a faster rate to stay on course. Still, experts say more funding is needed as the census gets closer.

“It takes a full decade to research, plan and prepare for a census, and funding has to increase steadily,” said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a census consultant who served as staff director of a House panel that oversees the census from 1987 to 1994.

“I do think there is a confluence of factors that could thwart a successful census and create what I see as a perfect storm in 2020,” she said.

Meanwhile, the agency has been accused of trying to circumvent the Senate confirmation process after Politico reported it was planning to name a deputy director who would assume the director’s duties, rather than naming a new director.

“It’s just unacceptable that we could be this far into the process and this far into an administration and there’s not even a sign that someone has been identified for the director role,” Barabba said.

The Commerce Department did not respond to requests for comment.

Adding even more uncertainty to the process, 2020 will be the first year part of the census will be conducted online.

Lowenthal said the Census Bureau only gets one shot every 10 years to conduct the census.

“There’s no do-overs,” she said. “It can’t go back and do it again if something fails.”

Tags Jeff Sessions Wilbur Ross
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