The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The census citizenship question failed. But Alabama is seeking to exclude undocumented immigrants in apportioning congressional seats.

Attorney General William P. Barr, right, next to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, speaks about the census during an event July 11 at the White House. (Alex Brandon/AP)

When the government announced plans last year to ask about citizenship on the 2020 Census, analysts inside and outside the Census Bureau warned it could scare many immigrants from being counted. The question was ultimately blocked by legal challenges.

But the fight over the census citizenship question seems to have been just one skirmish in a larger war over who deserves to be part of America’s democracy. Over the course of Donald Trump’s presidency, administration officials have signaled a desire to fundamentally alter the country’s system of representation, making it far more restrictive than ever before. In doing so, some have alluded to a lawsuit that, even if it fails, may still succeed in shaping the debate over representation.

Filed last year by the state of Alabama and Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) against the Commerce Department and the Census Bureau, it argues that the current system of apportioning congressional seats gives an unfair electoral advantage to states with more undocumented immigrants.

It says immigrants should not be counted for apportionment or federal funding if they are not in the United States legally, even if they do fill out the decennial survey. A hearing is scheduled for Sept. 6.

The concept is a radical shift from anything the country has done in the past. But it is in line with public and private statements from some government officials since Trump took office. It comes as the administration has said it will collect citizenship information from administrative records, which could make it easier for the government to estimate the number of undocumented immigrants in the future.

Experts on the Constitution and the census say the Alabama suit is unlikely to succeed and note that even if it did, it could be impossible to implement the new system in time to affect the 2020 count. But some see it as a strategy to move the needle on the national debate.

“It could be an attempt to normalize a position in the court of public opinion that they can’t win in a court of law,” said Thomas Wolf, counsel with the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. “That’s why it’s important to make clear how abnormal, un-American and aberrant these ways of doing things are.”

Some also question whether the Justice Department will mount a robust defense. A federal judge also has expressed doubt over the government’s commitment to defending it, citing this in his decision last year to allow advocates and jurisdictions to join the suit as defendants.

Last week, 16 states requested to intervene, referring to comments by Attorney General William P. Barr that seemed to suggest the case could succeed.

The Justice Department and the Commerce Department declined to comment for this story.

Alabama’s proposal would overturn a system that has remained largely intact since the decennial count began in 1790. The 14th Amendment, enacted after the Civil War, mandates that representatives be apportioned “counting the whole number of persons in each State.” (The Constitution’s original census clause contained similar language but distinguished between free people and slaves, who counted as three-fifths of a person.)

According to federal law, the commerce secretary, who is in charge of the Census Bureau, must provide decennial census numbers by the end of the census year — in this case, 2020 — to the president, who then reports it to Congress. Apportionment of the country’s 435 House seats and electoral votes is determined by those numbers.

Based on current population estimates, Alabama is projected to lose one congressional seat and one electoral vote. In the scenario proposed by the lawsuit, it would retain its current number of representatives, while states with more undocumented immigrants would lose more seats.

The case hinges on parsing out what the Founding Fathers meant by the word “person” or the word “in.”

It contends that “persons in each State” does not refer to undocumented immigrants, arguing that the phrase was “understood at both the Founding and in the Reconstruction era to be restricted to aliens who have been lawfully admitted to the body politic.”

It argues that a “proper” interpretation of the laws governing the census and apportionment would mean counting only “the total of legally present resident population of the United States.”

It is not the first time these questions have been raised; such debates took place during the drafting of the Constitution and the 14th Amendment, said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former staff director of the House census oversight subcommittee. Congress has “specifically debated whether to change the language from ‘persons’ to ‘citizens’ or ‘voters,’ ” and declined to do so, she said.

More recently, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment allows states to use total population, not just total ­voting-eligible population, to draw legislative districts.

Past litigation has left little room for debate, said Justin Levitt, an election law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles who was a deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division from 2015 to 2017.

“You count everybody,” he said.

The concept of legal residency didn’t exist at the time the Constitution was framed, Levitt said. “There was no restriction at the time to being here with the permission of the government.”

The lawsuit, he said, is simply “an attempt to further a conversation on who’s a proper part of what it means to be America.”

In an email to The Washington Post, Alabama Attorney General Stephen A. Marshall said the word “inhabitant” indicates “a level of permanence and commitment to a political community. . . . Thus, a resident of another State or country who is simply passing through a State on the census date is not counted as being part of that State. Nor should someone whose ties to the State are inherently tenuous, as in the case of people who are present in the country (and that State) illegally.”

The citizenship question would not have asked about people’s legal status, but challenges in court claimed it was an attempt to exclude immigrants and minorities, and the Democratic-voting jurisdictions in which they tend to live, from political representation and funding.

Discussions about changing apportionment criteria are not new. During litigation over the citizenship question, files from the hard drives of the late Republican redistricting strategist Thomas Hofeller included a 2015 study of his showing that drawing political maps based only on citizens of voting age rather than a state’s total population, as most of the nation now does, would give Republicans and white people an electoral advantage.

Emails showed Hofeller had discussed the citizenship question with officials in the Trump administration and the Census Bureau.

Trump, too, when asked last month about the citizenship question, said, “Number one, you need it for Congress.”

The administration’s robust pursuit of the citizenship question ended only after the Supreme Court blocked it, saying the government had provided a “contrived” reason for wanting the information.

Because of concerns that the Justice Department will not defend the Alabama suit wholeheartedly, a group of Hispanic voters and a civil rights organization, and a group of jurisdictions in California and Washington state, joined the government as defendants in the suit shortly after it was filed.

In his decision to allow the intervention, U.S. District Judge R. David Proctor called the government’s motion to dismiss “halfhearted” and said he was concerned that it had overlooked a key argument. “Allowing intervention will increase the prospect that the court will be more fully informed of the best arguments that support Defendants’ position,” he wrote.

On Monday, a coalition of 16 states, nine cities and counties, and the U.S. Conference of Mayors also requested to join as intervenors, arguing that under Alabama’s proposal, they would lose representation and funding. The city of Atlanta and Arlington County in Virginia on Monday requested to join the existing group of intervening jurisdictions.

The coalition, led by New York Attorney General Letitia James, said in its filing that it was concerned about remarks last month by Barr in which he seemed to refer to the Alabama case.

Standing beside Trump in the Rose Garden on July 11, the day the administration said it would drop its quest to add the citizenship question and would instead seek data on citizenship status through administrative records, Barr said that information would be used “for countless purposes.”

“For example, there is a current dispute over whether illegal aliens can be included for apportionment purposes. Depending on the resolution of that dispute, this data may be relevant to those considerations,” he said.

Levitt called the comment “really concerning.”

“It’s exceedingly odd to hear the attorney general lifting up an attack on the federal government’s position,” he said.