2020 Census Citizenship Question Is All About Voter Suppression

The Trump administration’s plan will depress minority participation, especially among undocumented immigrants fearing they could be deported. That means less power for Democrats.


Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

The Commerce Department confirmed Monday night that the 2020 census will ask respondents if they are U.S. citizens or not. On the face of it, that’s an innocuous question, and it was asked regularly until 1950.

But beneath the surface, it’s yet another spoke in the wheel of Republican voter suppression. That’s why the GOP’s leading vote suppressor, Kris Kobach, has endorsed it.

This is 2018, after all. The Trump administration has ruthlessly pursued Latino and Muslim populations, deporting “illegals” without due process even if they leave families behind, even if they are being sent “back” to countries they haven’t lived in since they were kids. Immigration and Customs Enforcement– has used any information available to do so, even information that was supposed to be confidential.

Even government programs that were supposed to be insulated from law enforcement have turned out to be not so insulated. New York City, for example, created a “NYC-ID” card that was meant to help the undocumented and poor have a valid ID for identification, health care, and governmental services. But as soon as Trump came to power, ICE asked for all those records to help them hunt down and deport “illegals.”

So far, New York has resisted – it’s a sanctuary city. But you can imagine Latinos, documented and undocumented alike, being extremely reluctant to answer anything about their citizenship status, including a census question.

You don’t even have to imagine. Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said in a press call Tuesday that “there is already data that the heightened level of fear among Latino populations, created by the Trump administration’s hostile policies and rhetoric, could depress their participation in the 2020 census – even before the citizenship question was added.”

“Asking every household, in the current political environment, will contribute to that climate of fear, particularly when there is no programmatic or legal reason to do so,” Gupta said.

The result, according to experts, will be a dramatic undercounting of Latino populations, which will in turn affect government services, budgets, and voter rolls.

That’s because all of those depend on census data, which is meant to track the number of human beings actually in the country, regardless of their immigration or citizenship status. From a public health perspective, for example, it doesn’t matter if sick people are documented or undocumented. They’re going to use the system, and so the system has to plan for them.

Asking every household, in the current political environment, will contribute to that climate of fear.
Vanita Gupta, CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

That’s true for voting as well. Non-citizens can’t vote, of course, but they are still counted for congressional districts and state congressional representation. It’s quite possible that California will lose one of its seats in the House of Representatives if enough undocumented people don’t respond to the census, as California’s attorney general wrote.

“Commerce Secretary Wilber Ross is trying to shrinkwrap a respectable label on a bottle filled with Trump’s poisonous agenda,” Gupta said. Indeed, Gupta noted that a Trump campaign mailing went out this week promoting the decision, even before it was announced.

Notably, the change originated not from the Census Department – where, according to reports, staff members have strongly opposed it – but from Jeff Sessions’s Justice Department, which says it needs the numbers to enforce the Voting Rights Act.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

Once again, the rhetoric is all patriotic: “The Justice Department is committed to fair and free elections for all Americans,” a spokesman told the New York Times. But the net effect of the change will be the opposite: people in states with more immigrants (again, documented and undocumented alike) will be under-represented in Congress.

Moreover, said Gupta, “I oversaw the enforcement of the Voting Rights Act for two years in the prior administration, and can tell you from experience that the vigorous enforcement of the VRA has never required asking a citizenship question in the census. In fact, it’s never been asked since the VRA was passed in 1965.”

The addition of the question is particularly galling to progressives because only last year, Secretary Ross testified that adding a question on sexual and gender identity would depress participation. As a result, the 2020 census will not count how many LGBT people there are in Amrica.

At that time, Ross said that any added question will reduce response rate. Now, he says that this added question won’t reduce response rate.

Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund, added that because the change is coming so late, there’s no time to gather evidence on that question. Noting that testing of the 2020 census form is already underway, Vargas said that this question “will be implemented blindly without any scientific data on its effects.”

The result, Vargas said, will be “catastrophic consequences for Latinos and all Americans.”

Since the decision was not a surprise, opposition has already organized. The State of California has sued the federal government to stop the question from being added, the State of New York is putting together a multi-state consortium to oppose it, and Democratic members of Congress are pushing to override the decision. (Ironically, congressional override is easier than ever thanks to Republican efforts to rein in the administrative state.)

Said Gupta, “this decision is wrong for our country, wrong for our communities, and wrong for our democracy, and we will fight to overturn it.”