The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s effort to rig the census takes a hit

(Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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It has been amply clear for some time that as far as Republicans are concerned, there is no institution of American government that should be immune from being twisted into a tool for them to obtain partisan advantage. On Tuesday, they suffered a temporary setback in that effort:

A federal judge has ruled against the Trump administration’s addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 Census.
In the first major ruling on the controversial question, U.S. District Judge Furman of New York’s Southern District court ordered the administration to stop its plans to add the question to the survey “without curing the legal defects” identified in his opinion.
Plaintiffs hailed the decision. “This ruling is a forceful rebuke of the Trump administration’s attempt to weaponize the census for an attack on immigrant communities,” said Dale Ho, an attorney for the ACLU, which was a plaintiff in the case.

Let me quickly give you the background if you’re not up to speed on the Trump administration’s effort to subvert the census. Upon taking office, the administration decided it wanted to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census, but it needed to come up with a reasonable-sounding justification for it, since its true motives were indefensible. So it came up with a cover story: It wanted the citizenship question so that it could properly enforce the Voting Rights Act.

Which is kind of like your kid telling you that you should buy him more Oreos because he wants to make sure he keeps his teeth clean. It's not a goal he agrees with in the first place, it's not why he wants the cookies, and getting him the cookies would accomplish the opposite of what he claims.

Why is this important? Anyone who has worked on the census will tell you that getting people to fill out the forms is a challenge, and it gets even worse in immigrant communities where people can feel intimidated by representatives of the government knocking on their doors. Now add in the Trump administration’s relentless assault on immigrants and Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) frequent abuses, and the problem becomes even more acute.

In that context, asking people about their citizenship status is guaranteed to result in undercounts in communities where there are lots of immigrants. Which means those areas will get less representation in Congress and fewer federal dollars for services. And that’s the whole point.

When I call the Voting Rights Act tale a “cover story,” I’m not just expressing an opinion. We have a paper trail of documents showing that the story the administration was telling in public, including under oath to Congress, was a lie. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, whose department oversees the Census Bureau, claimed under oath that the citizenship question was being added because the Justice Department had requested it, and the whole thing was the Justice Department’s idea. “The Department of Justice, as you know, initiated the request for inclusion of the citizenship question,” he said in response to a question about it during congressional testimony.

That was a lie. In fact, it was not the Justice Department’s idea. Ross and his aides approached the Justice Department and asked it to formally ask the Commerce Department for the citizenship question, in order to create a paper trail they could then point to in order to make their false claim. They encountered resistance from officials at the Justice Department, who were obviously uneasy about participating in this scheme. But eventually, after months of pleading and cajoling, they found someone at the Justice Department who was willing to write a letter “requesting” the citizenship question be added to the census. We know this because emails in which they carried out this scheme were obtained in a lawsuit and made public.

Ross also lied to Congress when he claimed that he had not spoken to anyone in the White House about the citizenship question; in fact, he had a conversation about it with Stephen K. Bannon, then the president’s chief political adviser, who suggested that Ross talk about the citizenship question to Kris Kobach, the notorious anti-immigrant vote suppressor who was then Kansas secretary of state; Ross did subsequently consult Kobach about it.

Once these lies were exposed, and facing the possibility that he could at least in theory be prosecuted for perjury, Ross issued statements changing his story, saying that the fog of his memory had cleared and he now recalls that the Justice Department didn’t initiate the request for the citizenship question and he did actually talk to the Trump White House about it.

Not only that, the Census Bureau itself told Ross in a memo in January 2018 that adding a citizenship question “is very costly, harms the quality of the census count, and would use substantially less accurate citizenship status data than are available from administrative sources.” He was undeterred.

All of which is to say that there’s simply no doubt that the Trump administration has been operating in absolute bad faith on this issue, lying to the public and to Congress about it and offering an absurd story to justify its actions. If there’s any silver lining, it’s that the administration is so incompetent that the deception has been completely obvious from the beginning.

Tuesday’s ruling made that clear: “The court concludes that Secretary Ross’s decision was pretextual — that the rationale he provided for his decision was not his real rationale.” That’s a judge’s way of saying, “You lied.”

This has to be seen in the context of a broader effort on the part of Republicans to put a thumb on the electoral scale in every way they possibly can, whether it’s extreme gerrymandering, voter suppression efforts targeted at minorities, or the use of the census to make Republican victories just that much more likely.

And despite this victory, they may well get away with it. This is one in a series of lawsuits filed by states challenging the citizenship question, and the matter will almost inevitably end up before the Supreme Court. Conservatives now have five justices on the court who appear well committed to doing what’s in the interests of the Republican Party. The question is whether they’ll be willing to undermine one of the bedrock institutions of American democracy in order to do it. I wish I could say I had any confidence they won’t.

Read more:

Read more:

Paul Waldman: The Trump administration’s deception on the census should be a major scandal

Marc A. Thiessen: There’s nothing wrong with a census question about citizenship

The Post’s View: Congress should stop the Trump administration from fouling the census

Vanita Gupta: The bitter lie behind the census’s citizenship question