The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Trump administration’s assault on the census must not happen again

An envelope containing a 2020 Census letter mailed to a U.S. resident in Detroit. (Paul Sancya/AP)

The Trump administration engaged in a years-long, multi-pronged effort to sabotage the U.S. census, largely centered on adding a question on citizenship to the 2020 count. A new report, released last week by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, paints a grim picture of what was happening behind the scenes.

A draft of an August 2017 memo, prepared by a political appointee in the Commerce Department, examined the idea of using citizenship data for apportioning seats in the House of Representatives, concluding it would likely be unconstitutional. Later versions omitted that language and came down in favor of including the question.

The newly released documents undercut the Trump administration’s repeated claims that the citizenship question had nothing to do with apportionment. The Constitution plainly states: “Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State.”

At the time, then-Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and other officials offered various unconvincing justifications for adding the question, most frequently that it would help enforce the Voting Rights Act. The Supreme Court blocked the move, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. calling the rationale “contrived.” The House report reinforces that conclusion.

The census is a crucial tool, used not only for apportionment and redistricting, but also for allocating approximately $1.5 trillion in annual federal aid to states and localities. Experts warned that a citizenship question would frighten immigrants and lead to the undercounting of minority communities.

Though the question was ultimately not included, the lengthy and public battle over it appears to have been enough: The Census Bureau reported that Black, Hispanic and Native Americans were undercounted at higher levels in 2020 compared with 2010 — Hispanics by a statistically significant amount — while White and Asian Americans were overcounted. Never mind that this might have backfired on Republicans, with the bureau reporting it significantly undercounted populations in Florida and Texas — red states with large minority communities — and overcounted populations in blue states such as Rhode Island and Minnesota. The accuracy of the census depends in no small part on its credibility, which has been severely damaged.

The next census is in 2030, but — given the scale of the undertaking and importance of the results — Congress should work quickly to insulate it from political interference. A bill recently introduced by Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), chairwoman of the House Oversight Committee, would do just that. The Ensuring a Fair and Accurate Census Act would restrict the number of political appointees at the Census Bureau, bar the removal of a bureau director without just cause and require new questions to be submitted to Congress ahead of time. It would also mandate new questions be “researched, tested and certified” by the commerce secretary and “evaluated by the Government Accountability Office.”

Though it was not able to implement its most drastic plans, the Trump administration’s assault on the integrity of the census should be an urgent warning. Too much rests on the decennial count to allow it to be exploited for partisan gain.