A secret trove of documents was revealed Thursday showing that the Trump administration added a citizenship question to the 2020 census as part of a right-wing plan to change how voting districts are drawn in the United States—a plan hatched to benefit “non-Hispanic whites.”
This is worse than anyone thought. This is white supremacy.
The citizenship question is already the subject of the most important Supreme Court case of the year. In that case, the ACLU and other progressive organizations alleged that the Trump administration added a question about citizenship to intimidate Hispanics from filling out the census for fear the information would be used by law enforcement for deportation. The Census Bureau estimates 6.5 million people won’t respond.
That undercounting, in turn, would lead to fewer Democratic-leaning congressional districts, to under-apportioning money for areas with uncounted residents, and even to decreasing the electoral college representation of Hispanic-heavy states like Texas, California, and New York. It would make presidential elections like 2016—where Trump won the most electoral votes despite losing the popular vote—more likely.
But today’s revelation is far, far more shocking.
In fact, the purpose of the citizenship question is to redraw congressional districts based on their number of citizens, rather than their total population, thus transforming democracy in America to the detriment of immigrants and people of color.
Congressional districts currently have populations of about 710,000 people. But if only citizens, rather than total population, were counted, then, for example, an area with 1.2 million people, including 500,000 non-citizens, would have the same representation as an area with 710,000 people. As the newly revealed documents explicitly discuss, the end result would be more white, Republican districts and fewer non-white, Democratic ones.
“We now know that the citizenship question germinated in an effort to limit the power of minority communities,” Dale Ho, the lawyer who argued the case at the Supreme Court, told The Daily Beast. “It’s all laid out there in black and white. It’s pretty remarkable.”
The man at the center of the revelation is one of those shadowy political operatives who has shaped American politics without most people knowing his name: Thomas Hofeller, who died last summer at age 75.
Hofeller was one of the key players in the wildly successful 2010 REDMAP initiative. In response to President Obama’s victory and the demographic changes in America, REDMAP used big data and dark money to flip otherwise obscure state-level races. That, in turn, flipped several state legislatures, which promptly redrew dozens of electoral maps to favor whites over non-whites, Republicans over Democrats.
Those maps, too, were the creation of Hofeller and his team.
REDMAP’s efforts were so successful that in 2016, despite winning fewer than half of all votes for the House in 2016, Republicans still held an advantage of 241 to 194. In Wisconsin, the most slanted electoral map in memory gave Republicans 60 percent of the seats in the state assembly despite winning only 47 percent of the vote. In Pennsylvania, 44 percent of voters are Democrats, but only 33 percent of its congressional representatives.
Coincidentally, two major gerrymandering cases, both descended from Hofeller’s REDMAP efforts, are also being considered by the Supreme Court at the moment—and like the census case, it is likely that the Court’s conservative majority will rule for the gerrymanderers.
In a twist worthy of a Netflix political thriller, Hofeller’s estranged daughter, a liberal, came across four hard drives and eighteen thumb drives after her father’s death. They contained 75,000 files, including countless files on REDMAP and Hofeller’s subsequent efforts to entrench white legislative majorities even in an age of non-white population majorities.
One of those files was a 2015 study he wrote for the conservative news outlet the Washington Free Beacon, showing how redistricting based on citizens rather than total population would benefit “non-Hispanic whites” and Republicans—but that such data could only be obtained by adding a citizenship question to the census.
Another was a ghostwritten letter, drafted by Hofeller, requesting the citizenship question. This exact language was placed into the Department of Justice request of the Commerce Department that administers the census. That request is at the center of the Supreme Court case.
None of this was disclosed by Trump administration officials. On the contrary, they baldly lied about it, denying that Hofeller had anything to do with the citizenship question when in fact he had written the DOJ letter requesting it. Indeed, senior DOJ official John Gore testified under oath that he drafted the letter, which we now know was copied from Hofeller.
How all this will affect the Supreme Court case is uncertain.
At oral arguments in April, the Court’s conservative majority seemed inclined to take the Department of Commerce’s stated rationale—that citizenship information was necessary to enforce the Voting Rights Act—at face value, refusing to inquire into the mountain of evidence of misconduct and deceit surrounding it.
That evidence included proof that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and his underlings lied to Congress about the process of adding the question, records of meetings between Ross and White House advisors Steve Bannon and Kris Kobach held well before the Department of Justice requested the citizenship question, and reams of expert testimony saying that while there was no reason to collect citizenship data to enforce the VRA, there was no doubt that asking about citizenship would decrease Hispanic response rates, in violation of the Constitution’s Enumeration Clause.
Today’s disclosure is complicated for two reasons.
First, in a way, it actually supports the government’s case. They’ve said all along that the citizenship question was for VRA purposes. Now, it turns out that’s true, in a way: the citizenship question will help weaponize the VRA against minority communities.
That’s certainly not what the government has argued, but it’s not a pretext either.
But the new evidence does show that the government clearly lied, in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act. The Court can and does consider new evidence when it enables the disposition of a case. And here, the memo, the letter, and the lies all amount to a gigantic violation of the law.
“If the government can get away with doing things for the opposite reason of what they say they’re doing,” said Ho, “we are in Orwellian territory.”
It’s possible that the Supreme Court will send the case back to lower courts for deliberation of the new evidence. The ACLU has submitted the evidence to the district court where the case was first heard, arguing for sanctions against the officials who lied under oath.
“The misrepresentations took place in district court, the findings of fact are in the district court,” said Ho. “So that’s where we are now.”
A remand to the district court could doom the citizenship question, since census forms must be printed in the coming months, although Ho told The Daily Beast that the government has lately admitted that, with more money, they can print census forms faster if need be.
The ACLU also filed a notice with the Supreme Court, informing them of the new evidence and the motion for sanctions at the district court.
Apart from the legal issues, however, today’s revelation is a bombshell, even by the standards of the Trump administration. It reveals a years-long effort, led by the White House, to rig the electoral system for partisan and racist goals. At stake is more than just the census, and more than congressional representation. At stake is the principle of “one person, one vote.” At stake is democracy as we know it.