As this July Fourth approached, the Trump White House delivered something to celebrate, or so it appeared before confusion typically took hold. On Tuesday, the administration abandoned its effort to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census. The decision means the Census Bureau can start printing questionnaires for the tally, meeting deadlines that appeared in jeopardy last week and again on Wednesday when President Trump talked about battling in court to keep the question.
The hope is the initial decision to back off prevails. It promises a more accurate count. Experts inside and outside the Census Bureau warn that a citizenship question would discourage participation, especially among Hispanics and other minorities, citizens and non-citizens alike, perhaps as many as 6.5 million people going uncounted.
That would fall short of the constitutional requirement for an “actual enumeration” of all living here.
The president’s talk of sticking with the question came in response to a Supreme Court ruling, with Chief Justice John Roberts writing for the 5-4 majority. The court blocked the use of the question, though it did leave the way open for the administration to provide a better reason, required by federal law. For now, that opening seems narrow, because of the prolonged legal fight ahead and the absence of a credible justification, apparent in how lamely Wilbur Ross, the commerce secretary, and others around the president have pushed for the question.
Recall that the question surfaced after other elements of the questionnaire long had been completed. Ross has insisted the Justice Department came to the Commerce Department, the overseer of the census, requesting inclusion of the citizenship question as part of improving enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. Three federal judges concluded the secretary isn’t telling the truth. They cited evidence revealing that Ross pressed for the question from the time he took office, consulting with Steve Bannon when he worked in the White House.
The judges, and the Supreme Court majority, found the voting rights angle served, essentially, as a cover story. For what?
Here is where the president, Ross and allies face a steep challenge. Documents recently have come to light from the computer files of the late Thomas Hofeller, a longtime Republican strategist. Hofeller argued in a study that a citizenship question would work to the partisan advantage of the Republican Party, especially in the drawing of new legislative, or congressional, districts in 2021. He had the ear of Trump officials early in the administration.
This disclosure prompted the reopening of a lawsuit opposing the citizenship question. The documents plainly highlight the difficulty in developing a better reason.
Whatever the White House confusion, the decision to give on the question serves the country well. If it holds, there remains work to do in dealing with the fallout of the debate. Census experts worry the controversy has been enough to leave false impressions and discourage participation, in particular, among immigrants, documented and undocumented, who may fear retribution and want no part of the process.
That concern requires, in response, educational and outreach campaigns, most likely from local organizations and governments. It makes more crucial the Complete Count Committee, a partnership of Summit County and the city of Akron, to advocate participation. Gov. Mike DeWine has the same in mind with his Census 2020 Complete Count Commission.
There is much at stake, the census driving the distribution of federal funding and the shape of political boundaries, not to mention the Electoral College. This is a collective effort in defining the country. It matters that the count is as accurate as possible. The decision to stay away from a citizenship question advances the cause.