But when the 1790 population tally came in at a disappointingly low 3.9 million residents, skeptics — including President George Washington and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson — insisted that the initial effort surely must have missed 1 million or more people. The new nation’s wounded pride notwithstanding, later surveys suggested that the first count was pretty much on the mark.
Nor has the seemingly objective exercise of counting people ever been immune to politics. The census helps determine how more than $675 billion in federal funds will be allocated annually and how congressional district lines will be redrawn to ensure that voters are equally represented. After the 1920 Census showed a massive movement from farms to cities, the rural lawmakers who dominated things at the time decided to ignore it entirely and skipped reapportionment that decade.
The Trump administration now proposes to corrupt the process in a different way: by requiring every household to report the citizenship status of its members.
This plan, announced this last week by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, will mark the first time since 1950 that the government has asked the citizenship status of every person in the country.
Reinstating that census question at this moment, when the immigration debate could hardly be hotter, raises a danger that those who feel vulnerable will not trust the government’s assurances of confidentiality and will simply decide not to participate, throwing off the accuracy of the count.
Even in its current configuration, the census has a tendency to slightly undercount blacks and Hispanics, while overcounting the number of non-Hispanic whites — something that works in favor of Republicans. This will only push it further in that direction.
Ross acknowledges concerns that adding a citizenship question could depress participation and that the query has not undergone the normal field testing done on other parts of the census form.
Nor is there any urgent necessity for such a move. The Census Bureau already has a lot of data on citizenship. The question is asked in a smaller, rolling sample known as the American Community Survey, which goes to about 3 million households a year.
Ross’s argument for adding it to the universally distributed form is that it would somehow help protect the rights of minorities under the Voting Rights Act, though the Justice Department has been able to enforce that law without such a citizenship count for more than half a century.
That this change is being made at the request of the current Justice Department actually adds more reason to question the motives behind it, given Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s fixation on the idea that there is massive voter fraud in this country. That groundless assumption has been fanned by President Trump, who has claimed that he won the popular vote in 2016 “if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”
Beyond the disingenuousness, there is some hypocrisy at work here. Conservatives have long complained that census-takers ask too much. Before the 2010 Census, some tea party leaders were even urging a boycott.
“For my family, the only question we will be answering is how many people are in our home,” then-Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) said in 2009, when a Democratic administration was running the census. “We won’t be answering any information beyond that, because the Constitution doesn’t require any information beyond that.”
California sued almost immediately after the administration announced its decision to add the citizenship question to the census, and other states, including New York, say they will as well. All of this could tie up things in the courts for quite a while, which might be enough of a delay to keep the question off the 2020 Census.
We have grown accustomed to Trump and his administration bending reality and making up their own facts. This is one place where it cannot be allowed to happen. Making people disappear on the census will not make them — or their needs — go away.
“You count everybody because it was a functional device to make sure that our limited resources were allocated so that we can take care of whoever we have to take care of,” said Mayor Mitch Landrieu (D) of New Orleans, at a breakfast Thursday hosted by Bloomberg News. “Mayors do not get to say to you, a human being, ‘I know that you’re sick and I know that you’re dying, but I’m not sending the ambulance to get you unless you give me your immigration status.’ We don’t get to do that. We have to take care of that human being.”
When it comes to the census, getting it right is what matters most. The Founders of the country understood that, and the people of the country — all of them — deserve it.
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