The Census Bureau Must Preserve the Backbone of Our Democracy

This blog was originally posted on ADL on January 3.

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By Melissa Garlick, Civil Rights National Counsel, Anti-Defamation League

The founders of our nation chose population as the basis for sharing political power – not wealth or land.  The decennial census, required by the U.S. Constitution, provides the basis for that population count – and for apportioning the number of U.S. House of Representatives among the states, the number of Electoral College votes each state has, and to draw congressional, state legislative, and even city council district lines.  The population figures obtained by over 600,000 door-to-door counters also affects the distribution of funding for infrastructure and community services.  The longstanding mission of the census is “to serve as the leading source of quality data about the nation’s people and economy.”  It is the basis for America’s most basic civic principle: the right of the people to elect their representatives.

The census should never be politicized, or used for partisan purposes.

Yet, last week, ProPublica revealed that the Department of Justice (DOJ) had made the unprecedented request that the Census Bureau add a question on citizenship to the 2020 census “short form.”  This effort should be alarming to all who care about the integrity and basic institutions of our democracy.  In a December 2017 letter, DOJ wrongly claimed that the basis of the request was that such data is “critical to the Department’s enforcement of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) and its important protections against racial discrimination in voting.” But, in reality, the census has not collected citizenship data since 1960 – before the enactment of the Voting Rights Act.

Especially in the context of an administration that has demonstrated special hostility to all forms of immigration, adding a citizenship question and/or legal status question would severely undermine the accuracy of the data in every community and every state.  It would chill participation of immigrant communities out of fear that the census information would be used for immigration enforcement purposes – or promote false or incomplete answers.

There are already substantial logistical and language access obstacles to overcome to ensure an accurate census.  Historically, the census has undercounted children, people of color, rural residents, and low-income households at higher rates.  Some researchers have already found that census participation is connected to a jurisdiction’s demographics.  New research confirms that residents are expressing concern about the confidentiality of information they provide to the Census Bureau out of fear that the data will be shared with other federal agencies – including immigration enforcement agencies.  Particularly in this climate of fear among immigrant and marginalized communities and against a backdrop of harsh, heightened anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies, proposed new questions around legal status will only further exacerbate immigrants’ fears to participate in our democracy.  The impact of inaccurate census data would be felt acutely in states with growing communities of color and immigrant communities for at least the next decade.

Additionally, this request comes almost a year after the Census Bureau has already finalized topics for the 2020 census.  The rushed timing and lack of public communication by the federal government in proposing this change to the census further raises questions and skepticism as to motives, heightening fears and reducing public confidence in the democratic process.

An accurate census count is at the very root of ensuring basic notions of equality and democratic representation.  The census must be protected against politicized questions, and any other efforts to undermine trust and confidence in its count.  The Census Bureau should start with rejecting DOJ’s late, unnecessary request to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.