Editorial: Citizenship question on census would hurt Florida

A willful undercount would violate the Constitution.
A citizenship question would interfere with the primary purpose of the census, which is to count heads. [AP photo by Michelle R. Smith]
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
Updated 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.