The End of the Citizenship Fight
Yesterday, the Trump Administration officially abandoned their effort to get a question on citizenship added to the 2020 Census:
President Trump on Thursday abandoned his quest to place a question about citizenship on the 2020 census, and instructed the government to compile citizenship data from existing federal records instead, ending a bitterly fought legal battle that turned the nonpartisan census into an object of political warfare.
Mr. Trump announced in the Rose Garden that he was giving up on modifying the census two weeks after the Supreme Court rebuked his administration over its effort to do so. Just last week, Mr. Trump had insisted that his administration “must” pursue that goal.
“We are not backing down on our effort to determine the citizenship status of the United States population,” Mr. Trump said. But rather than carry on the fight over the census, he said he was issuing an executive order instructing federal departments and agencies to provide the Census Bureau with citizenship data from their “vast” databases immediately.
For those of you who haven’t been following closely, Trump wanted the Census to ask respondents their citizenship status for the first time since 1950 (NPR has a good breakdown of how the citizenship question has been used in prior surveys; it was still included on the long form until that was abandoned in 2010). Supporters said that this was important information to collect. The official justification from Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross was that this would aid enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. Opponents believed the purpose was to intimidate immigrants and minorities from filling out the survey. This would then allow the Trump Administration to re-apportion Congress to favor a whiter, more conservative electorate.
Unfortunately for Trump, the discovery phase revealed that the opponents has a point: the decision came not from the DOJ but from Steve Bannon and Kris Kobach for political purposes. Ross then pressured the DOJ to come up with some kind of rationalization for it. The decision was opposed by many within the Census Bureau because they felt it would make the survey less accurate but Ross persisted. The Court found both that the citizenship question could be challenged and that the Commerce Department’s justification of the rule was contrived.
The Commerce Department initially conceded but then had to reverse course when Trump rage-tweeted about it. The government tried to change lawyers so that they could make different arguments in favor of the citizenship question that SCOTUS might accept. A lower court refused to let them do this. Trump then called his press conference yesterday. There was a great deal of speculation that the President would simply ignore the Court’s ruling, like his idol Andrew Jackson. Maybe he intended to do that but was talked out of it. In any case, Trump has now effectively conceded.
I’m kind of mixed on this a little bit in that I see both sides’ arguments. I can see an argument for getting a handle on how many people in this country are not citizens. But I also see the point that this could decrease participation. Some estimates placed the number of undercounted residents as high as 6.5 million. While I am dubious of that estimate, I think it’s quite likely that the number of people who wouldn’t participate would be substantial and that the number would be skewed against populations that tend to vote Democrat. Roberts’ majority decision in the matter also crosses me as entirely correct: whatever the merits of the citizenship question, it was clear that the Commerce Department had made a political decision that they were trying to rationalize by any means possible. That’s not the way the system is supposed to work.
I suspect this isn’t the last we’ll hear of this. But, for now, the citizenship question is dead.