Republicans' plan to undermine the 2020 census may blow up in their faces

Republicans don't want an accurate count, for obvious reasons. But a botched census will hurt their voters most

By Sophia Tesfaye

Senior Politics Editor

Published March 28, 2018 4:58AM (EDT)

Steve King; Donald Trump (AP/Getty/Salon)
Steve King; Donald Trump (AP/Getty/Salon)

Late on Monday night, the Trump administration quietly announced a break with seven decades of precedence, with the decision to include a question on citizenship status in the 2020 census. By daybreak, the attorneys general of California and New York, along with former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, had announced plans to file suit to block the decision, arguing that the question will likely lead to an inaccurate count.

On the other hand, both moderate and conservative Republicans lauded this injection of politics into the decennial count meant to determine governmental representation and funding. That’s because it’s a massive troll by the Trump administration, designed to allow Republicans to condemn Democrats for not wanting to collect legitimate data, while also portraying themselves as fighting on behalf of citizens against invading aliens. 

It won't work. Not only that, the Trump administration's handling of the census so far has been a boondoggle that is nearly guaranteed to backfire against the president's base.

If there is any doubt that the Trump administration's attempt to sabotage the census is meant to aide Republicans, note that one week before Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced the change, Trump’s re-election campaign emailed a fundraising pitch lobbying for the citizenship question.

“The President wants the 2020 United States Census to ask people whether or not they are citizens,” read the email, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post. “The President wants to know if you’re on his side.”

Additionally, Jeff Sessions’ Justice Department, which is hardly a fan of the Voting Rights Act, has claimed it needs the controversial question asked to help enforce Section 2 of the act, which protects against racial discrimination in elections. Voting rights advocates argue, however, that the annual American Community Survey, which includes a citizenship question and is sent to 1 in 38 households, provides sufficient data for Voting Rights Act enforcement.

“This line about enforcing voting rights is a new and scary twist,” said Steve Jost, the Census Bureau’s chief strategist for data dissemination in 2010, to ProPublica.

Pushed by hardline conservatives like Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach and Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, the inclusion of a citizenship question is part of Republicans’ long game to redistrict themselves into uncontested power. While propagating the voter-fraud myth that President Trump repeated numerous times during his first year in office, Republicans have argued that counting non-citizens as residents of a congressional district gives Democrats an unfair advantage.

“We need to be counting citizens instead of people for the purposes of redistricting,” King said in a January interview, pointing out that such a move would give Iowa an additional seat in Congress. “That’s going to take at a minimum a statute and it may take a constitutional amendment and so in this upcoming Census, I want to count separately the citizens separate from the non-citizens, the lawfully present Americans separate from the illegal aliens that are here so that America can see how bad this is.”

King, like Trump, has claimed that California is somehow gaming the system. (Trump has previously suggested that millions of undocumented immigrants voted in the Golden State, with absolutely no evidence.)

King has said that Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., "only needs about 40,000 votes to get re-elected in her district and it takes me over 120,000 in mine because hers is loaded with illegals and mine only has a few.” But in their zeal to punish blue states for having undocumented immigrants and non-citizens, Republicans have worked to hinder a fair and accurate count in a way that will hurt their own voters the most.

Congress has directed the Census Bureau to spend no more on the 2020 Census than it did on the 2010 Census. That year, according to the bureau, Latinos in this country were undercounted by 1.5 percent and African-Americans by nearly 2 percent. Recent forecasts show Northeastern states losing congressional seats to states in the South, as growth among populations that are traditionally harder to count explodes.

The Census Bureau, meanwhile, has had no leader since May, and the Government Accountability Office reported that just four of the bureau's 40-plus systems had completed development and testing. Earlier this year, the bureau canceled several field tests of its new methodologies, including a test in West Virginia aimed explicitly at rural residents. Indeed, most of what the bureau calls "hard-to-count" (HTC) counties — those with a mail return rate in the 2010 census of 72.7 percent or less — are in rural areas that consistently vote Republican and where Trump far outpolled Hillary Clinton in 2016. Issues with Census readiness directly impact Trump country. 

Such is the case in South Texas, where internet access among poor residents is low, leaving tens of thousands out of the Census Bureau’s plan to solicit about 80 percent of their responses in 2020 via the internet. Twenty-one percent of rural homes lack internet service, compared with 13 percent of urban households.

“The heavy reliance on the internet in the 2020 Census may pose a special concern for rural residents,” demographer William P. O’Hare concludes. “Data show that good internet access is less likely to be available in rural areas and a test [in West Virginia] that might reveal difficulties has recently been cancelled.”

Latinos in Texas — a large majority of the state’s immigrant population — accounted for 65 percent of the population growth that helped Texas gain four House seats after the 2010 census. If trends continue through the end of the decade, the next census is likely to result in Texas gaining an additional three House seats. But more than a million Latino residents of Texas share a household with at least one undocumented immigrant and are likely unsettled by the Trump administration's anti-immigrant actions and recent rhetoric.

Trump’s initial pick to lead the Census Bureau further betrays the true motives behind these shenanigans. Thomas Brunell, a Texas professor whose only experience in government was as an adviser to North Carolina Republicans trying to redraw congressional districts, literally wrote a book titled "Redistricting and Representation: Why Competitive Elections are Bad for America.”

Brunell has since withdrawn his name from consideration, but as with the rushed move to include a citizenship question with little to no field testing, the absence of an agency leader does not portend well for the readiness of the 2020 census. If the count is botched, the whole country will suffer — but Trump voters and Republican-friendly regions may fare the worst. 

By Sophia Tesfaye

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon's senior editor for news and politics, and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

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