Florida Attorney General pushed for Census citizenship question despite expected undercount in state

Of states signing amicus brief, only Texas has more noncitizens per capita.
After winning the nomination for Florida attorney general, Ashley Moody speaks to over 100 supporters in August. [BRONTE WITTPENN   |   Times]
After winning the nomination for Florida attorney general, Ashley Moody speaks to over 100 supporters in August. [BRONTE WITTPENN | Times]
Published April 28, 2019|Updated April 28, 2019

An upcoming U.S. Supreme Court ruling on whether a citizenship question should be included on the Census questionnaire could depress the population count in Florida as much as anywhere.

Yet state officials are among those pushing hardest for it to be included.

President Donald Trump’s Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross added the question, which would ask every person if they are a citizen of the United States. The Census Bureau and independent researchers say that doing so, especially during an immigrant-unfriendly presidency, will discourage many Americans from responding.

Any effects the question has will bear out in Florida as much as anywhere. One in every 11 Floridians is a noncitizen (according to the Census Bureau’s own American Community Survey, which does ask about citizenship).

If, as the bureau estimates, nearly 6 percent of them decline to respond to the Census as a result of the citizenship question, that total would easily eclipse 100,000 people.

Getting fewer responses would cost more money and work in trying to find and count people. Ultimately, it would lead to some people never being counted at all. Tax dollars, grant funding, jobs programs and political representation all rely on population counts in certain geographic areas.

Yet Florida has taken an active role in pushing for the question. In March, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody joined 16 states in an amicus brief supporting the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Moody’s spokeswoman Lauren Schenone said in a statement Friday that the Commerce Department’s request “is lawful and appropriate to ensure full compliance with the Voting Rights Act, which prevents discrimination.”

In December 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice requested the question — months after Ross originally brought it up. To comply with the Voting Rights Act, states use citizen voting-age population numbers from surveys rather than the full Census.

In the Southern District of New York case, which the Supreme Court then took up, Judge Jesse Furman concluded that using such data from the Census rather than the current surveys would lead to imprecise data.

Furman also concluded that, after Hispanic households and households with noncitizens responded less than others, the Census staff’s work to count them wouldn’t be able to close the gap.

Harvard researchers took on the question with a randomized trial and published their results in March. The study found that including a citizenship question on a survey made Hispanic people skip more questions and made all respondents less likely to say that Hispanic people lived in their household.

Many people who live in the United States legally are not citizens, and the Census counts residents no matter their legal status.

Nearly half of Floridians who are not citizens live in three counties — Miami-Dade, Collier and Broward. In Tampa Bay, Hillsborough would be the most affected county.

Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Les Miller also leads the local “Complete Count Committee” group that works with the Census to increase response rates.

In early April, Miller said many people may avoid responding “because of the mere fact that they feel they might be putting themselves in jeopardy, and that’s unfortunate.” But, he added, it was up to the courts to decide.

Much is made over Congressional representation, but communities also depend on the Census to secure grant funding and other resources.

For example, the federal government’s Community Development Block Grants consider census data in applications for funding for housing and jobs programs. Programs to support racial minorities or people in poverty may be at risk if many of those people in a given community are also noncitizens.

In a news release, the Latino and immigrant civic engagement nonprofit Mi Familia Vota said the citizenship question “will suppress census participation, subsequently decreasing the power, representation, and funding of our communities in an unfair manner.”

An extreme example of what an undercount can mean to a community came in Pasco County two Censuses ago. According to the Tampa Tribune, the small city of San Antonio believed it held 900 residents in 2000. But in what commissioners called a mistake based on residents with post office boxes not receiving their forms, Census takers recorded just 700 people.

City officials worried that even though its residents were paying taxes to the state, far fewer dollars than expected would come back to the city’s budget.

“In Tampa, being off by 200 people has a very small impact,” then-Mayor Roy Pierce said in 2001. “Here, if the Census is off by 50 people, that could mean 3 percent of our budget.”

In the end, San Antonio could only convince the Census Bureau it was slightly undercounted, boosting its numbers by 4 percent rather than the 25 percent the city wanted.