SCOTUS Census citizenship vote

It SHOULD have been 9-0

citizenship questionLast week, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to refuse to approve the citizenship question on the 2020 census. More accurately, SCOTUS referred the case back to a lower court. I’m glad for the outcome, but I thought the dissent was disingenuous.

“‘For the first time ever, the court invalidates an agency action solely because it questions the sincerity of the agency’s otherwise adequate rationale,’ said Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justices Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. dissented separately.”

Adequate rationale? Well, no.

“On May 30, the plaintiffs [revealed that a] central portion of the Justice Department’s rationale for the question was apparently written by Thomas Hofeller, the GOP’s longtime gerrymandering mastermind. In a 2015 study, Hofeller wrote that adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census would be ‘advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic Whites’ and “a disadvantage to the Democrats.’

“He also explained how Republicans could justify inserting a citizenship question by claiming, falsely, that it would aid enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. Multiple passages in Hofeller’s study appeared verbatim in the 2017 Justice Department letter that provided a legal rationale for the question’s addition.”

While the “Justice Department responded with indignant denial,” the nefarious conspiratorial linkage is quite clear, in far more detail than I can get into here. If the ruling had gone the other way, it could have dealt a grave blow to democracy.

Even those who voted correctly misrepresented the ‘pedigree’ of the citizenship question. “Never in the 230-year history of the census has the complete-count questionnaire (or its equivalent) asked for the citizenship status of everyone in the country.”

Several companies had filed a brief to the Supreme Court arguing that “The inaccuracy resulting from the Citizenship Question will harm businesses, because Census data can play a role in many decisions by large and small businesses alike.”

This is not to say the decennial Census process is now out of the woods. A report by the Urban Institute notes that “new ways of conducting the U.S. census… have not been thoroughly tested and could pose another risk to the count’s accuracy. These methods include allowing all households to complete an online form…

“The study found that new operational changes being implemented in 2020 like ‘internet self-response’… were ‘insufficiently tested in a decennial census environment’ and that “best evidence suggests they will disproportionately improve the count of those who are already easiest to count, leaving the hard-to-count population a lingering challenge.'”

The average person might think the Census folk only work on the Census in the immediate run up to the event, but not so. Particularly in the 60 months before the decennial, the Bureau is testing questions and methodologies.

“Uncertainty in funding in recent years” – blame Congress and the White House for that – “has led the Census Bureau to cancel field tests for the 2020 census, including test runs designed for rural and Spanish-speaking areas. This could still lead to the worst undercount of black and Latinx people in 30 years.

Of course, the folks at Census are aware that not everyone is online, and will offer alternatives, including mail, phone, and when necessary, in-person visits, though each of those attempts come as an added expense.

An inaccurate count affects redistricting for a decade and affect other data sources. It also guides community funding decisions. Learn more about Census data at the Census Academy.