The Supreme Court has made a decision on the 2020 census that could be very good for millions of Americans: It ruled that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, whose agency oversees the Census Bureau, acted illegally in adding a citizenship question that threatened to result in a large undercount of Hispanics and immigrants.
Unfortunately, the decision could still be bad for the census. It all depends on how the Trump administration responds.
The decennial count of the nation’s population is one of the federal government’s most fundamental responsibilities. It helps determine how hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funds are distributed. It informs decisions on where to put supermarkets, roads and schools. It underpins the accuracy of just about every major government report, including the monthly jobs survey.
So far, though, the Trump administration has shown depressingly little concern for getting the 2020 census right. When the president took office, Census Bureau officials were already in bad shape: short of money and leadership, behind schedule and struggling to manage innovations such as online questionnaires. Instead of working to repair these problems, Secretary Ross added a further complication by ordering that the bureau, for the first time in 70 years, ask all the country’s inhabitants about their citizenship status.
From a technical standpoint, the last-minute change was a bad idea. An accurate census requires years of preparation. In addition, the proposed question would complicate efforts to reach minorities and immigrants, populations already wary of answering government surveys. By one estimate, the citizenship question could have led to an undercount of 12 percent of the country’s Hispanic population.
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Now, the Supreme Court has ruled that Ross’s move was not just ill-advised but also illegal, focusing on the justification he offered. Ross argued that the citizenship data was needed to ensure that all citizens were getting their fair say under the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This was never necessary, because the annual American Community Survey has long provided Justice with ample data to enforce the act. What mattered to the court, though, was that Ross’s reasoning seemed “contrived”: He appeared to have decided to add the question long before seeking a rationale.
The justices didn’t address the secretary’s true motivation. But new evidence strongly suggests that it had little to do with protecting voting rights. A Republican redistricting expert, who played a crucial role in getting the question added, wrote that doing so would help increase the representation of “Republicans and non-Hispanic whites.”
The court’s 5-4 decision creates a small window of opportunity to rescue the census, by getting on with it as quickly as possible. The count must be conducted according to a strict schedule, and there’s little time to spare. Census officials say that they must start printing questionnaires in July. Beyond that, a settled list of questions — and the certainty it provides — is essential for crafting effective advertising and public education campaigns, and in recruiting businesses to help encourage participation.
Yet the ruling also offers the Trump administration a different course of action: trying to come up with a justification for the citizenship question that will pass legal muster. This risks delays so severe that the census would be undermined no matter what the outcome in the courts. As a result, the country’s understanding of its own population — and everything that depends on it — would be skewed for at least a decade.
For this reason, the only intelligent answer to this year’s big census question is this: Let the count proceed.