The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Trump administration got exactly what it wanted from the 2020 Census

A form for the U.S. Census 2020. (John Roark/AP)
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The Trump administration might have failed in its effort to exclude undocumented immigrants from the U.S. Census. But it still managed to get exactly what it wanted: a less accurate count that diminishes minority communities in the United States.

The Census Bureau reported on Thursday that the 2020 Census undercounted Hispanics, Black people, Native Americans and other minority groups while overcounting White people and residents of Asian descent. The undercounts are a familiar — though by no means acceptable — phenomenon. But the 2020 Census was considerably worse than in previous years. The undercount rate for Hispanics was 4.99 percent, more than three times the undercount for the demographic from the 2010 Census. Undercounts for Black people and Native Americans were also higher than in 2010, but the difference was not statistically significant, the agency said.

This is a travesty for our democracy, which relies on an accurate count to apportion fair representation and to distribute funds to states. The lion’s share of the blame falls on the previous administration, which did everything in its power to sabotage the decennial exercise.

Start with the efforts, led by then-Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, to add a question about citizenship in the census despite warnings that doing so would depress participation among Hispanics. The administration also fabricated rationales for the question, arguing that it would help enforce the Voting Rights Act. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. rightly valued that for what it was — a lie. As he wrote in the Supreme Court’s ruling that blocked the inclusion of the question, the court was not “required to exhibit a naiveté from which ordinary citizens are free.”

But the damage was already done. Experts warned that even the suggestion that census workers would ask about a resident’s citizenship status would intimidate immigrants, preventing many Latinos from taking part in the surveys. The high rates of exclusion among Hispanics suggest those fears were warranted.

The Census Bureau also had to manage its herculean task in the midst of a pandemic and other natural disasters in 2020, making it even more difficult for census workers to count hard-to-reach populations. To address the logistical nightmare, Trump officials first proposed extending the bureau’s schedule for the count. But then the administration reversed course, requiring the bureau to provide its results to the president by Dec. 31 of that year. A lower federal court attempted to force the administration to maintain its original schedule, but failed. The administration fought that order all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in the administration’s favor.

Census Bureau Director Robert Santos, while acknowledging shortcomings in the 2020 data, insisted this week that the count is “fit for many uses and decision-making” and a “vivid portrait of our nation’s population.” His statement is a recognition that no census will be perfect. But no one can defend the previous administration’s efforts to undermine the census. The country is worse off and will be less representative because the Trump administration failed to carry out this essential constitutional duty to the best of its ability.