How and who to count in the 2020 Census has been at the heart of a legal battle against the Trump administration since March of last year. That’s when Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the census, authorized the reinstatement of a controversial question: “Is this person a citizen of the United States?”
At least seven lawsuits challenged the move on constitutional and procedural grounds. A couple of US district judges have sided with the plaintiffs, which include states and civil rights groups. The federal government appealed all the way to the Supreme Court. On Thursday, the court finally declared a winner — sort of.
In a divided ruling, the court narrowly blocked the Trump administration from including the citizenship question. Chief Justice John Roberts joined the court’s four liberal justices in raising doubts about the administration’s intent behind the question. The rationale offered by Ross to add it, he wrote, “seems to have been contrived,” and the justices sent the matter back to the district court for the administration to come up with a more reasonable justification.
In other words, the court didn’t say it wasn’t permissible to ask the citizenship question in the forms. It just said that the administration needed better reasoning.
Now it’s up to Trump officials to produce that reasoning, and subject the case to more thorough legal scrutiny. Meanwhile, the Census Bureau has said it needs to print survey forms by Monday, but Trump is already seeking to pull the reins on the process, hoping to find a way to push the citizenship question through.
The administration should accept defeat and drop the question for good. It never made sense to bring it back. It would lead to an undercount by suppressing census participation of disenfranchised groups. That would be a major blow to our democracy and would affect us all.
The census count is used to determine how many elected representatives each state should have in Congress — that is, how much electoral power each state gets. It also determines how much money states receive, from roughly $880 billion in federal dollars, for programs such as Head Start, Medicare, and food stamps. Massachusetts would stand to lose $22 billion in funding, or about $2,500 per person, according to estimates, if the citizenship question were reinstated.
Between 1820 and 1950, the citizenship question was asked of all households, but was subsequently deemed unnecessary and moved to the long-form questionnaire, which is sent to only a small share of the population. Since Trump took office, there were reports he wanted to reinstate the citizenship question. The question has always been why.
There is ample research, from independent demographic experts and Census Bureau officers, concluding that the move would yield an inaccurate count. Latino and other immigrant groups, they argued, would avoid answering the census for fear of being targeted if they lacked citizenship status. Chief Justice Roberts agreed: “Several state respondents here have shown that if noncitizen households are undercounted by as little as 2 percent . . . they will lose out on federal funds that are distributed on the basis of state population.”
And seats in Congress, of course. One need not be cynical to start seeing a real motive behind the citizenship question. Yet Ross has insisted that it was needed to enforce the Voting Rights Act, a dubious pretext. The Supreme Court agreed with the lower court. “Several points, considered together, reveal a significant mismatch between the decision the Secretary made and the rationale he provided,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote. “[W]e cannot ignore the disconnect between the decision made and the explanation given.”
All of us have a stake in this fight. It is our shared responsibility to ensure that all residents, no matter who they are or where they’re from, are duly counted. While the Supreme Court handed a small victory in the case, the fight is clearly not over.