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New documents shed light on Team Trump's controversial Census scheme

If newly released documents are correct, the Trump administration lied about how and why it added a citizenship question to the 2020 Census.
The front columns at the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, Oct. 5, 2015. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
The front columns at the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, Oct. 5, 2015.

About a year ago, the Trump administration announced plans to add a question about citizenship status to the 2020 Census. As we've discussed, the move was widely condemned for good reason: the question is likely to discourage immigrants' participation in the census, which would mean under-represented communities in the official count, affecting everything from political power to public investments.

The administration has struggled to defend the move in the courts, though the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case last month and the justices are expected to rule in the coming weeks.

Here's hoping they read today's New York Times before making up their minds.

Thomas B. Hofeller achieved near-mythic status in the Republican Party as the Michelangelo of gerrymandering, the architect of partisan political maps that cemented the party's dominance across the country.But after he died last summer, his estranged daughter discovered hard drives in her father's home that revealed something else: Mr. Hofeller had played a crucial role in the Trump administration's decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.Files on those drives showed that he wrote a study in 2015 concluding that adding a citizenship question to the census would allow Republicans to draft even more extreme gerrymandered maps to stymie Democrats. And months after urging President Trump's transition team to tack the question onto the census, he wrote the key portion of a draft Justice Department letter claiming the question was needed to enforce the 1965 Voting Rights Act — the rationale the administration later used to justify its decision.

Voting-rights advocates have long pointed to Republican gerrymandering and Republican efforts to rig the Census as related elements of the same corrupt and undemocratic campaign. But this story suggests the two initiatives are more than just political cousins: the GOP operative who served as a gerrymandering architect is the same Republican who helped push the citizenship question onto the Census.

As Rick Hasen explained in Slate, "Those newly revealed documents show that the Trump administration's purpose in putting the citizenship question on the upcoming census was not its stated one to help Hispanic voters under the Voting Rights Act, but rather to create policy that would be 'a disadvantage to the Democrats' and 'advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic Whites.' It's difficult to produce a greater smoking gun than explicitly saying you are hoping to help the GOP by increasing white voting power."

The broader story is a complex one, especially when it comes to how Hofeller's materials came to light by way of an estranged daughter. But the bottom line remains the same: the Trump administration not only lied about how the question was added to the Census; it also lied about why.

Whether conservative justices -- two of whom were named to the high court by Donald Trump -- will care is unclear. They seemed sympathetic to the administration during oral arguments, and Hasen made a compelling case that these new details are unlikely to sway them.

For more on this, Mother Jones' Ari Berman and TPM's Tierney Sneed published helpful overviews.