1. Opinion

Editorial: Citizenship question on census would hurt Florida

A citizenship question would interfere with the primary purpose of the census, which is to count heads. [AP photo by Michelle R. Smith]
Published May 10

The point of the census is to count every man, woman and child in the United States. Anything that detracts from that fundamental purpose is a bad idea, particularly if the intent is to undercount minorities and undocumented residents for political purposes. The U.S. Supreme Court should find the Trump administration's plan to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census is unconstitutional so the count is as accurate as possible.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the census, wants to add a citizenship question in 2020. That prompted a lawsuit by a multitude of states (not Florida, of course, which supports adding the question) and civil rights groups, who won in three different federal courts. The census forms need to be printed this summer, so the Supreme Court accepted the case on a fast track and a decision is expected by next month.

The stakes are high for Florida. The census determines how many seats each state will have in the U.S. House, and it is used to allocate federal funds to states for everything from Medicare to highways. If the citizenship question remains, Florida could lose billions in federal dollars and perhaps one additional congressional seat because many minorities and immigrants, documented or not, understandably will be afraid to fill out the census.

When the case — United States Department of Commerce vs. New York — went before the Supreme Court for oral arguments in late April, Justice Sonia Sotomayor was the leading skeptic: "There is no doubt that people will respond less. That has been proven in study after study." Indeed it has. One government estimate expects an undercount of about 6.5 million people if the citizenship question is allowed. The Census Bureau also raised these concerns in 2017 after it conducted a field study and focus groups of minorities who might feel targeted.

As a lower court ruled, the citizenship question would violate the Constitution's "Enumeration Clause" by resulting in an undercount. Those who support the citizenship question say it was routinely asked on censuses up through 1950. That misses the point. Polling methods have improved so much since then that the census dropped the citizenship question from its short form because it could obtain the same data more reliably in other ways. Why add it now? And that's where constitutionality comes in.

The Commerce secretary's statisticians in the Census Bureau urged him not to add the citizenship question. So Ross approached both the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security searching for a reason to include the question, although he had claimed that he decided to include the question solely in response to a Justice request in late 2017. The Justice Department said then the data about citizenship would help it enforce the Voting Rights Act, which is not one of the Trump administration's known priorities.

Three federal trial judges concluded that the record demonstrates that Ross was not telling the truth. Rather, he had long before decided to add the question, the judges found, and he pressured Justice officials to concoct a reason. Documents from those cases demonstrate that Ross had discussed the citizenship issue with Steve Bannon and Kris Kobach, the former Kansas secretary of state, both outspoken and vehement foes of illegal immigration.

It's not hard to connect the dots and see why the Trump administration wants to include the Florida-damaging citizenship question on the census, and why the Supreme Court should rule that it's unconstitutional.


  1. Florida's unemployment rate was unchanged in October at 3.2 percent, according to numbers released Friday. LYNNE SLADKY  |  AP
    The latest numbers were released Friday morning.
  2.  Jim Morin -- Morin Toons Syndicate
  3. Career Foreign Service officer George Kent and top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine William Taylor, right, are sworn in to testify during the first public impeachment hearing of the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill, Wednesday Nov. 13, 2019, in Washington. JOSHUA ROBERTS  |  AP
    Here’s what readers had to say in Friday’s letters to the editor.
  4. SCOTT KEELER   |   Times
Visitors head to Florida's Old Capitol building on the first day of the annual sixty day session, Tuesday, March 5, 2019. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis addressed a joint session of the Florida Legislature Tuesday in Tallahassee.  SCOTT KEELER  |  Tampa Bay Times
    The Florida Legislature appears determined to pass legislation requiring parental consent.
  5. Some of Tampa Bay's largest companies are being sold or are up for sale. Times files and Bloomin' Brands
    Tech Data is just the latest in a growing list of public companies bought up by out-of-state firms.
  6. A house for rent in St. Petersburg.  [SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN | Times] SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN  |  Susan Taylor Martin
    The City Council has afforded renters more protections from discrimination and unjustified late fees.
  7. Top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine William Taylor testifies before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019, during the first public impeachment hearing of President Donald Trump's efforts to tie U.S. aid for Ukraine to investigations of his political opponents. ANDREW HARNIK  |  AP
    Here’s what readers had to say in Thursday’s letters to the editor.
  8. Leonard Pitts undefined
    No controversy ever ends quietly on social media, writes Leonard Pitts.
  9. In this Oct. 11, 2018, photo, rescue personnel perform a search in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach. GERALD HERBERT  |  AP
    While it is too late to stop global warming, we can prevent it from getting worse, two scientists write.
  10. Florida's toll roads
    Here’s what readers had to say in Wednesday’s letters to the editor.