The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Congress should stop the Trump administration from fouling the census

Copies of the 2010 Census forms. (Ross D. Franklin/AP)

THE CENSUS Bureau’s once-a-decade count of the country’s population determines where federal money goes and how political power is divided among states. Whether by design or incompetence, the Trump administration is threatening to rig the count against Democrats.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who decides what the government asks in its authoritative decennial count, announced Monday that the Census Bureau will ask respondents to report their citizenship status on the form that goes out to all U.S. households. The census is supposed to take an accurate picture of the entire country, not just of residents born or naturalized here. Combined with President Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, asking about citizenship status will depress the count among immigrant communities and result in inaccurate information.

In a memo explaining his reasoning, Mr. Ross admitted that adding the question could depress census participation. But he argued that asking about citizenship would impose a “limited burden” on those filling out census forms, because individual responses are anonymous. Placing the burden of proof on those objecting to the change, Mr. Ross said that “no one provided evidence that reinstating a citizenship question on the decennial census would materially decrease response rates.”

But it is Mr. Ross’s responsibility to oversee a fair census. There is enough evidence, anecdotal and statistical, for serious worry about the citizenship question. Census researchers have recently noted instances of heightened concern among immigrant respondents about cooperating with the count. Immigrant response rates to the yearly American Community Survey, which asks about citizenship, are lower than nonimmigrant response rates. Even without a citizenship question, the 2010 Census overcounted the non-Hispanic population and undercounted the Hispanic population.

Morever, an absence of evidence would not be proof of no harm. It was Mr. Ross’s duty to show that the harm would be acceptably limited before adding a new question. By his own admission, he failed to do so. New census forms should be and generally are thoroughly tested before rollout, a process that takes years. This question is being added hastily to the form in the midst of its first and only dry run for the 2020 count.

If immigrant communities are substantially undercounted, Democrats will lose seats in Congress and in statehouses. Political districts contain equal numbers of people, citizen and noncitizen alike. Nonvoters, of course, cannot choose who represents them in Washington or in state capitals. But minors, green-card holders and other nonvoters still count. Political representation has been apportioned according to this principle since the country’s founding. If the count is off in the urban centers where immigrants congregate, blue states will lose representation and rural areas will gain political clout even more disproportionate to the number of people who actually live in them.

The state of California immediately announced a lawsuit challenging Mr. Ross’s decision. But Congress also could act. Lawmakers should prevent the Trump administration from fouling the census.

Read more on this topic:

Christine Emba: White Americans, welcome to the club of being asked, ‘Where are you really from?’

Ward Connerly and Mike Gonzalez: It’s time the Census Bureau stops dividing America

Timothy P. Johnson and Roger Tourangeau: Yes, the census should be tracking race and ethnicity

The Post’s View: The Trump administration pushes for a change that could derail the census

The Post’s View: The Census process is off to a lousy start. Congress must save it.