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The Trump administration faces Census 'sabotage' accusations

Any effort to politicize the census is as dangerous as it is consequential. It's what makes the Trump administration's latest moves so alarming.
People walk along Madison Avenue on Nov. 1, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty)
People walk along Madison Avenue on Nov. 1, 2011 in New York City.

Last month, a bipartisan group of 161 American mayors pleaded with the Trump administration to pursue a more responsible course with decennial census. The list of concerns raised by the mayors wasn't short: it included everything from management issues to methodology decisions to budgetary concerns.

Around the same time, William Galvin, the Massachusetts secretary of state, warned that the Trump administration may "politicize" the census process, possibly "sabotaging" the national count.

Those concerns grew even more serious late yesterday.

The Commerce Department said Monday that the 2020 U.S. Census would include a question about citizenship status.The Commerce Department said in a statement that the citizenship data would help the Justice Department enforce the Voting Rights Act, which protects minority voting rights. Opponents have said the question will discourage immigrants from responding to the census.

This is, of course, one of the specific things the bipartisan group of mayors urged the administration not to do.

I can appreciate why stories like these may seem obscure and overly technical, but the Trump administration's latest move in this area is likely to have significant, real-world consequences.

The Washington Post had a good piece on why "this is a big deal."

...Republicans already have a significant edge on the congressional and state legislative maps, thanks to how our population is distributed and to the GOP having earned the power to redraw lots of the new maps after the 2010 Census. And [yesterday's Commerce Department announcement] could significantly increase their advantages for two reasons:1. It might dissuade noncitizens from participating in the census, thereby diluting the political power of the (mostly urban and Democratic) areas they come from.2. Even without that, it would hand Republicans a new tool in redrawing districts even more in their favor.

The reasoning is straightforward: the citizenship question is likely to discourage immigrants' participation in the census. That, in turn, would mean under-represented communities in the official count, which carries dramatic consequences on everything from political power to public investments. Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recently wrote on this for The New Republic:

Today, the inclusion of a citizenship question on the 2020 census questionnaire will both lower the response rate of households and threaten the accuracy of the count. According to a September 2017 census memo, researchers conducting field tests last year noticed a "new phenomenon" of increased fear among immigrant participants. Many of them referenced concerns about the "Muslim ban" and Immigration and Customs Enforcement activities, which caused people to report inaccurate information or refuse to participate at all. The addition of a citizenship question would exacerbate this climate of fear among minority and immigrant populations and drive critical participation levels even lower.

The decision is not yet final. NBC News' report added, "California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a tweet that he would sue to challenge the legality of the move. 'Including the question is not just a bad idea -- it is illegal,' Becerra said.

Watch this space.