It is not unusual for the bureau to use data from states on a range of subjects. But relying on citizenship data from state DMV records would be problematic on several levels, said Andrea Senteno, regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF). The civil rights organization has sued the Trump administration over the executive order and successfully represented some challengers of the administration’s quest to add a citizenship question to the census.
“These states are notoriously bad at determining when someone is not a citizen,” Senteno said. She noted that DMV records are not necessarily updated when a person naturalizes, and said relying on such data would result in undercounts of people who became citizens after getting driver’s licenses or state IDs — a group that includes a higher proportion of minorities than the general population.
Dale Ho, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union who represented plaintiffs in the citizenship question litigation, agreed. “Our concern is that this is part of an attempt to reduce the political clout of minority communities,” he said.
The Census Bureau told The Washington Post that it sent out requests for “voluntary data sharing” in September, asking for information including name, address, date of birth, sex, race, eye color and citizenship status. It did not say how many states it had contacted for the data.
Responding to a question about potential problems with accuracy, the bureau said, “As with all records, the Census Bureau will look at the administrative records and assess whether they will support the goals of increasing the accuracy of the decennial count and data linkage projects.”
Trump announced the executive order in July when the administration conceded defeat in its lengthy battle to add a citizenship question to the 2020 survey. That effort was ultimately blocked by the Supreme Court.
The government said it needed the data to better enforce the Voting Rights Act, but census experts, civil rights organizations and the bureau’s chief statistician said inclusion of the data would likely suppress the response rate among immigrants and minorities. Census data is used to determine congressional apportionment, redistricting and hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funding each year.
It is not clear how many state DMVs received the request for data. The Post reached out to officials in 27 states and the District of Columbia. Of the 21 who responded, officials in 16 jurisdictions said they had received the request. Officials in Alaska, Illinois, Indiana, Maine and Oregon said they will not comply.
“It appears we either can’t provide what they want or simply don’t have the information in the driver records,” said Oregon DMV spokesman David House, adding, “The Bureau also asked us to enter a memorandum of understanding or other contractual agreement to obtain data, and we do not do that.”
Under Oregon law, he said, “we can provide only name, address and DMV customer number … to a qualified agency under the condition that they do not release it further. We cannot provide the other data the bureau asked about, such as legal presence status.”
Kristen Schulze Muszynski, a spokesperson for Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap said, “We do collect the data they requested, and Sec. Dunlap does not feel he is authorized to share it for this (undefined) use.
A Maryland DMV spokesperson said it is reviewing the request, but added that it does not maintain citizenship data. The District of Columbia DMV said it is reviewing the request with its legal department. A spokesman for the Virginia DMV said it had not received a request, but added such a request would need to be reviewed to see if releasing the data would be permissible under federal and state laws.
An attempt to rely on DMV data to determine citizenship failed earlier this year after Texas questioned the citizenship status of almost 100,000 registered voters, many of whom had naturalized after receiving their driver’s licenses or state identification cards. A federal judge ordered Texas officials to suspend a voter purge, and they later reached a settlement with MALDEF and other organizations.
It is unclear whether the bureau would be able to collect data from states in time to use it for redistricting that follows the decennial count. “Working with the states is a long process” that can take years, said John Thompson, a former Census Bureau director. “You have to negotiate an individual privacy record agreement with each state and that takes time.”
He said, “I’m not aware of any studies on the accuracy of driver’s license data for citizenship. . . . What research have they relied on that says driver’s licenses will produce that qualified data?”
The question of counting citizens came into sharp relief during litigation over the citizenship question, particularly after a study was found in the files of a deceased Republican redistricting specialist showing that counting only citizens, rather than all residents, for representation would give an advantage to Republicans and non-Hispanic whites.
Alabama has sued the government to be allowed to cut undocumented people from being counted for apportionment, saying the system will cause it to lose a House seat. Although constitutional scholars say that suit is unlikely to succeed, some civil rights advocates say the government may be trying to distinguish between citizens and noncitizens to be ready in case laws change in the future.
MALDEF’s suit against the executive order argues that it will create a deterrent effect for people to participate in the census and avoid other points of contact with the government.
This could include participation in elections by citizens who may be afraid that their citizenship could be challenged or who fear exposing noncitizen family members to government scrutiny, Senteno said, adding, “They know that many people who don’t respond are going to be communities of color.”
Rebecca Tan contributed to this report.