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Opinion Trump wants to change the census. But this undercuts his case.

The Justice Department's request to add a citizenship question on the 2020 U.S. Census was granted. Here's how that could affect voting districts. (Video: Joyce Koh, Daron Taylor/The Washington Post)


As had been widely feared, the Trump administration will try to add a question about citizenship to the 2020 Census. The decision was announced last night in a memo from the Commerce Department, and it immediately triggered widespread criticism from civil rights advocates and Democrats who fear that it will result in an undercounting of key groups — which, in turn, could shift political representation, power and federal dollars away from states with large immigrant populations.

Here’s something that badly undermines the Trump administration’s defense of the move: a letter from former directors of the U.S. Census Bureau, under both Republican and Democratic administrations, which argues that adding the question now would be “highly risky,” could have “unexpected” consequences and will “considerably increase the risks” of an inaccurate count.

Interestingly, one former Census Bureau official who is cited by the administration in its defense of the move is actually a signatory to the letter criticizing it.

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The move comes in response to a request from Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s Justice Department. In keeping with that, the memo from Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross justifying the change tries to portray it as a means of better enforcing the Voting Rights Act, by improving data on who is eligible to vote.

Whether or not Sessions actually wants to improve enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, this rationale alone does not address the problem raised by critics, which is that adding a citizenship question could depress the response rate from undocumented immigrants, resulting in an undercount in high immigrant areas. As they have pointed outall people residing in the United States — whether citizens or not — must be counted in the census for purposes involving congressional representation and the distribution of federal money. Such undercounts could result in a shift of power and money to rural areas, and states such as California have already launched lawsuits.

The memo by Ross acknowledges that such undercounting could pose a potential problem. But Ross argues that he made an extensive good-faith effort to determine whether this would happen. Importantly, though, Ross repeatedly says in the memo that he could not determine that this would not happen, noting that making this determination is “challenging.”

But this is exactly the problem, according to former U.S. Census Bureau chiefs. In the letter, which they sent to Ross in January, they stated:

We strongly believe that adding an untested question on citizenship status at this late point in the decennial planning process would put the accuracy of the enumeration and success of the census in all communities at grave risk. … planning a decennial census is an enormous challenge. Preparations for a census are complex, with each component related to and built upon previous research and tests. …
It is highly risky to ask untested questions in the context of the complete 2020 Census design. There is a great deal of evidence that even small changes in survey question order, wording, and instructions can have significant, and often unexpected, consequences for the rate, quality, and truthfulness of response. The effect of adding a citizenship question to the 2020 Census on data quality and census accuracy, therefore, is completely unknown. … we believe that adding a citizenship question to the 2020 Census will considerably increase the risks to the 2020 enumeration.

Instead of fast-tracking this now for the 2020 Census, they instead urge a multi-year testing process to determine the impact of the question on population counts. The letter was provided to me by one of its organizers, former congressional aide and census expert Terri Ann Lowenthal.

In the memo justifying the new policy, Ross notes that the “former director of the Census Bureau during the last decennial census” told him that no data exist to answer the question of whether an undercount would result, thus furthering his argument that determining this is “challenging.” That is a reference to Robert Groves, the Census Bureau director from 2009 to 2012. But Groves is a signatory to the letter denouncing the move, precisely on the grounds that not enough empirical work has been done to judge the impact of it.

Asked for comment, a Commerce Department spokesperson told me that Ross and his staff had reviewed dozens of letters from stakeholders involved and “had specific conversations on the citizenship question with over 24 diverse, well informed and interested parties representing a broad range of views.”

What’s next

Now what? Vanita Gupta, president of the Leadership Conference, which is gearing up with a number of states and organizations to fight the change, tells me that Congress will now come under pressure to undo it. “Congress can pass a law removing the question,” Gupta says. “They can take action between now and the census.”

Given how this move might shift power, it seems unlikely that Republicans — who in recent years have doubled down on techniques such as voter suppression and extreme gerrymandering — will agree to undo it. But if Democrats can take back the House, they could act in time — making this yet another way in which the stakes for the 2018 elections are extremely high.

* TRUMP CHAFES OVER FEMALE ACCUSERS: Michael D. Shear and Maggie Haberman report that President Trump has so far refrained from tweeting about Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, but boy, does he ever want to:

Inside the White House, Mr. Trump is eager to defend himself against allegations that he insists are false, those close to him say. And he is growing increasingly frustrated with breathless, wall-to-wall news media coverage of the salacious details from the two women.

Trump cannot respond effectively to Daniels, meaning that this time, he is constrained from employing his usual tactic of flooding the zone with B.S.

* TRUMP GRIPES ABOUT STORMY DANIELS: The Post reports on Trump’s frustrations:

Privately, the president has lobbed sharp attacks at Daniels and her media tour, calling her allegations a “hoax” and asking confidants if the episode is hurting his poll numbers. The president even has griped to several people that Daniels is not the type of woman he finds attractive.

And of course, we all know that Trump is very disciplined at keeping his instinct to lash out in check over time.

* HOW DANIELS POSES A THREAT TO TRUMP: The Post story also contains this:

Experts say any possible legal danger for Trump stemming from the alleged affair could come from the nondisclosure agreement that his longtime personal attorney, Michael Cohen, executed with Daniels shortly before the 2016 presidential election. In exchange for her silence, Cohen facilitated a $130,000 payment to Daniels in October 2016 — which, if deemed an in-kind contribution to the Trump campaign, would violate federal law.

The Post also reports that Trump believes this will blow over, but the basic facts would seem to suggest otherwise.

* TWO MORE LAWYERS SAY ‘THANKS BUT NO THANKS’: The Daily Beast confirms that two top lawyers, Tom Buchanan and Dan Webb, have turned down requests to represent Trump. From their statement:

“They were unable to take on the representation due to business conflicts. However they consider the opportunity to represent the President to be the highest honor and they sincerely regret that they cannot do so. They wish the president the best and believe he has excellent representation in Ty Cobb and Jay Sekulow.”

One doubts that they “sincerely regret” this, and one also doubts that they believe Cobb and Sekulow constitute “excellent representation.” Translated, this means, “better you than me.”

* REPUBLICANS ARE IN A TRUMP TRAP: The New York Times reports that Republicans are bracing for large midterm losses, because sexual charges against Trump, and his erratic style, threaten to alienate “crucial blocs of suburban voters and politically moderate women”:

This widening chasm has created a dilemma for Republicans, especially in liberal and swing states. If they stay faithful to Mr. Trump they risk incurring the wrath of many in the political center during the general election, likely dooming their campaigns. But if they disavow the president, they risk depressing turnout from their core Republican voters and watching their pool of volunteers evaporate overnight.

As GOP Rep. Ryan Costello, who just announced his retirement, puts it, if he held a town hall now, he’d face “question after question” about Stormy Daniels. Next week it would be something else.

* REPUBLICANS FACE SEVERE PROBLEM IN SUBURBS: The Post reports that House Republicans in suburban districts are in real trouble, because suburban voters tend to be more affluent, and Trump is deep underwater with more affluent, college-educated whites:

Residents of the 21 Republican seats recently rated by the Cook Political Report to be the most vulnerable to Democratic takeover have a median household income 33 percent higher than the country as a whole, according to an analysis by The Washington Post. Thirty percent of the voters in those districts are college-educated whites, well higher than the 23 percent average for the country.

We’ve already seen that these voters are driving the Democratic anti-Trump resurgence. And there is no indication that Trump will stop alienating and infuriating them.

* GOP HAS A ‘BIAS AGAINST DEMOCRACY’: Paul Krugman looks at how Republicans have basically used cultural and racial messaging to scam voters into accepting a deeply unpopular economic agenda, and adds:

The nature of the modern G.O.P.’s game gives it a bias against democracy. After all, one way to protect yourself against voters who figure out what you’re up to is to stop them from voting. Vote suppression and extreme gerrymandering are already key parts of Republican strategy, but what we’ve seen so far may be just the beginning. And if you think that G.O.P. leaders would balk at gross electoral manipulation, you haven’t been paying attention.

Fortunately, Trump’s efforts to launch a national voter suppression scheme were foiled, but one imagines that there is worse to come.