Do We Need to Know if Constituents are Citizens?​​​​​​​


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Do We Need to Know if Constituents are Citizens?

The Department of Commerce’s recent memo detailing their intention to reinstate the question on citizenship status to the 2020 census has caused such an uproar that seventeen states, six cities, and the District of Columbia have sued the Department of Commerce, the Census Bureau, and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in order to keep the question off the census. The Department of Commerce’s announcement claims that despite “limited potential adverse impacts”, Secretary Ross had decided to implement the question on the grounds that it allows for better enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. But does it?

The argument for the question holds that data on citizenship currently provided to the federal government via the American Community Survey is ineffectual. 

In the Department of Commerce’s memo on the question, they argue that extrapolation creates too large a margin of error for the ACS data to be useful.

The ACS is sent to only about 2.6% of Americans every year, and the data from those responses is extrapolated to estimate information to the rest of the population. The Department of Commerce argues that this extrapolation creates too large a margin of error for the ACS data to be useful. The Census Bureau goes on to claim that more accurate data would facilitate better enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, specifically Section 2. The Voting Rights Act, which was enacted in 1965, serves to enforce the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. The Fifteenth Amendment states:

“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

Section 2 of the VRA in particular is designed to enforce the 15th amendment by protecting minorities from discriminatory voting laws, such as Jim Crow era literacy tests given to African Americans. The section bans any voting provision that results in discrimination — intentional or not. 

While, as the Census Bureau claims, it is necessary to have accurate data on minority communities in order to enforce laws meant to protect them, the citizenship question may not actually achieve this effect.

Opponents of the proposal claim that Hispanic minorities, fearful of deportation or arrest, may see the citizenship status question and avoid answering the census altogether. Naturally, they would then go uncounted in the census block data. This would result in an undercount of some minority communities, which would make Section 2 harder to enforce in some districts, because voter suppression is impossible to detect if you don’t know who and where would-be voters are.

The Census Bureau’s memo contends that because no empirical data has ever been collected on whether citizenship status questions depress response rates, it’s an unfounded objection.

The memo also mentions using accurate census block data for apportionment of Congress Members among states, which is governed by the 14th amendment. Congressional districts must each have the same number of constituents so that each vote counts equally. For example, each member of the House of Representatives represents about 710,000 people. And because of the way the 14th is worded — “counting the whole number of persons in each state” —  districts are counted by people and not citizens. Several Republican politicians have asserted that since undocumented immigrants are counted for apportionment but are not able to vote, eligible voters in districts with large amounts of undocumented immigrants have more sway with each vote, thereby diminishing the voting power of voters in districts with fewer undocumented immigrants.

However, this question has already been brought to the Supreme Court in Plyler v. Doe, where the Court held that Fourteenth Amendment protections must extend to illegal immigrants, and that the word “persons” means every person in the jurisdiction of the United States. 

For the census, this means that an accurate count is essential, but citizenship status? Not so much.

Lydia BalestraComment