The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Newly empowered Rep. Gerald E. Connolly aims to tackle census citizenship question

Copies of the 2010 Census forms. The Trump administration wants to add a question about citizenship to the 2020 Census. Democrats, including Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (Va.), said it would intimidate immigrants and discourage them from participating.
Copies of the 2010 Census forms. The Trump administration wants to add a question about citizenship to the 2020 Census. Democrats, including Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (Va.), said it would intimidate immigrants and discourage them from participating. (Ross D. Franklin/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (Va.) and fellow Democrats on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee tried to persuade Republicans to issue dozens of subpoenas to investigate Trump administration policies, from the travel ban to family separation.

But one issue Connolly plans to tackle as soon as Democrats take control of the House next year has a lower profile, yet wide-ranging consequences: the 2020 Census.

Connolly, who expects to be appointed chairman of the subcommittee with jurisdiction over the census, said he will use his newfound power to try to reverse the administration’s plan to ask residents whether they are citizens.

Connolly and other critics — including local and state officials and former Census Bureau directors — say inclusion of the citizenship question will discourage participation among undocumented residents and result in an inaccurate count.

Six lawsuits have been filed over the matter.

Bad numbers could jeopardize billions of dollars in federal funding and cost states seats in legislatures and the U.S. House, all of which are determined by census data.

The problem could be acute in Connolly’s Northern Virginia district, which includes most of Fairfax and Prince William, fast-growing counties where households with one or more immigrants are common.

“I worry a lot about the reaction of many of these households to a census with this question,” Connolly said in a recent interview. “I want them to be able to comply with the census with no fear that someone will get them because of their answers. That fear is real and palpable.”

Connolly wants Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to publicly explain why, in Connolly’s words, he “misled” Congress about how the citizenship question was added to the census for the first time since 1950.

Ross initially said the decision to include the citizenship question on the census came from a Department of Justice request in December 2017. Internal documents showed Ross took steps to add the question as early as March of that year.

The congressman would also like experts to testify about how including the question could hamper census results.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), the incoming chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Connolly wanted to subpoena Ross in September.

The issue has fallen along party lines in the House, with Republicans supporting the inclusion of the question and Democrats hoping to remove it, but Connolly said he hopes some Senate Republicans come around.

“Apparently my Republican friends are afraid of actually revealing how many of us there are because that means more voters, and more voters is inimical to their political interests,” he said, adding that public pressure has prompted President Trump to retreat on some unpopular policies.

Outgoing Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) signaled his support for the citizenship question at a June hearing of a subcommittee he chairs under the auspices of the House Judiciary Committee.

“In particular, getting better information regarding the citizen and noncitizen population of our country has significant implications for the fair and accurate enforcement of the Voting Right Acts, the distribution of members of the House of Representatives in the apportionment process and in providing for equal voting power among qualified voters,” Goodlatte said during the hearing.

The clock is ticking because the Census Bureau must begin printing survey materials in June 2019.

About 80 percent of respondents will receive postcards asking them to fill out the survey online, according to the bureau.

The other 20 percent — people who live in rural areas with limited Internet access — will have the option to fill out a paper questionnaire or go online, if possible.

Respondents can start filling out surveys in mto late March of 2020; the official kickoff of the next decennial census is April 1, 2020.

Census data-driven formulas help determine funding for medical assistance, free and reduced-price school lunch, low-income housing, special education, infant nutrition, adoption, firefighters, crime victims and hundreds of other programs.

In 2015, Virginia received $953 million in Highway Trust Fund grants, $131 million in Urbanized Area Formula Grants and $64 million in Child Care Development grants — funds that would be reduced if the citizenship question leads to an undercount, according to a lawsuit the state joined.

Julie Emery is executive director of the bipartisan Virginia Civic Engagement Table, which represents nonprofits, localities and businesses in an effort to urge residents to participate in the census. She said there could be a high undercount, the number of residents who don’t fill out the census, because of the citizenship question and the move to digital surveys for the first time for most people.

Children younger than 5 are traditionally the hardest to count, Emery said. For this census, she would add residents in rural counties without broadband — such as Lee in the southwest and Rappa­hannock and Culpeper counties to the north — as well as those in low-income urban areas who can’t afford Internet service.

The growing distrust of government and sharing personal information online adds to the challenge, she said. As her organizers register voters and remind people to vote in the 2019 General Assembly races, she said, they may add a reminder about the census.

“When you talk about impact on people’s communities,” she said, “they’re more likely to participate.”

An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the percentage of the population that will receive postcards with an invitation to fill out the survey online and the percentage that will be given the option to complete a paper questionnaire or go online. The story also gave the incorrect time frame for when respondents will be able to take the survey. This story has been updated.