Every 10 years, as one decade transitions into the next, the U.S. government conducts a national census to count the number of people living in the country.
It’s mandated by the Constitution, and since 1790 has been the best large-scale way to account for who’s living where. It has also helped track demographic changes in the country, but that’s not part of the constitutional provision.
And that’s not to say it’s perfect. Despite radical changes in technology, we still go about the census in roughly the same way as our Founding Fathers did. Households fill out a short questionnaire accounting for everyone living there. The method leaves out the usual underrepresented people — homeless and transient people, or those fearful of checking in with the federal government.
But it’s an important count, because it dictates how federal money is allocated and how representatives are distributed. That’s why it’s been mandated since our country’s founding — to make sure we’ve got an accurate starting point for taxation and representation.
This year and next, millions of hours and billions of dollars will be spent making sure the count is as accurate as it can be. But there’s an effort afoot to rig what should be a non-political undertaking.
Where past leaders have seen a tool, President Donald Trump and his administration see a weapon.
Sure, other elected officials of all stripes have sought ways to skew the census results. Gerrymandering has become both an art and science as legislators redraw districts based on the numbers to secure power and diminish the ability of opponents to build support. They twist the straightforward count after it’s collected.
But the move by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to add a question about citizenship to the census is an attempt to mess with the numbers before they’re even counted.
It’s been presented as an honest attempt to account for non-citizens in the interest of enforcing the Voting Rights Act, and a practice with a long history in the U.S.
On the second count, there’s some truth. In the 1800s and early 1900s the census inquired about the “naturalization” or citizenship of respondents. In recent years, that question has instead been asked in other surveys by the Census Bureau designed to track demographics and immigration.
But on the first count, that this is merely a curious government trying to use its power of inquiry to squash potential voter fraud, we’re doubtful. Especially because the data would shed no light on the Voting Rights Act.
It looks more like an attempt to limit responses from Hispanics and illegal immigrants. It surely would have that effect, regardless the intent. By the government’s own estimates, as many as 6.5 million people would decline to participate — about 2 percent of the total population.
Representation, as dictated in the Constitution, is tied to population and not citizenship. And intentionally undercounting a specific group of people is an ugly tactic.
The failure of the administration to listen to experts on the topic — the nonpolitical Census Bureau — is also concerning. Ross has attempted to place the impetus for the decision on the Department of Justice, tasked with enforcing the Voting Rights Act. But records show it was he who requested the department send a letter to the Census Bureau asking to add the citizenship question.
The debate about whether the administration can add the question is now before the Supreme Court after a judge in a U.S. District Court ruled it illegal on multiple counts — from the fact that Ross missed the deadline to adjust the census to the fact that he didn’t attempt to use readily available data to address the Voting Rights Act. Skipping steps and ignoring rules are often a sign of either incompetence or malfeasance, and either way a blow to our confidence in the administration.
The Supreme Court will make its ruling. The census will be taken. And it will either be an honest attempt at a snapshot of people living in this country or a rigged count that leaves out a segment of the population.
Either way, its findings will resonate for the next decade and beyond.