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New emails reveal a central political motivation for changing the census

The Justice Department's request to add a citizenship question on the 2020 U.S. Census was granted. Here's how that could affect voting districts. (Video: Joyce Koh, Daron Taylor/The Washington Post)

When Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross instructed the Census Bureau earlier this year to include a question on the decennial census about the citizenship of residents, he offered a specific rationale. Having data on citizenship, he wrote, would allow the government to better enforce the Voting Rights Act, Civil-Rights-era legislation meant to protect voting from discriminatory policies.

This rationale was quickly treated with skepticism. The Trump administration has not in other significant ways championed the importance of Americans to vote or seemed particularly concerned about cracking down on efforts to limit voting. In fact, President Trump convened a commission meant to study the purported issue of voter fraud, an effort that in other places has been a precursor to new laws making voting more difficult, not easier. Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, even praised a 2013 Supreme Court decision that gutted the rule.

So what was the rationale? Newly released emails from the Commerce Department offer an unsurprising answer.

The simple but explosive questions Wilbur Ross is fighting not to answer

The emails were released in response to questions Ross faced about why he’d demanded the new question in the first place. He was asked in March whether he’d spoken with anyone at the White House about the question, a pointed effort to figure out whether this was part of the Trump administration’s broad effort to crack down on immigrants in the country illegally. Ross said he hadn’t spoken with anyone at the White House — but the new emails show that, in fact, he had. Specifically, he spoke with Stephen K. Bannon, the former adviser to the president who was one of the more outspoken anti-immigration members of the president’s early team.

Ross had also spoken with Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, as shown in an email Kobach sent to the secretary. Kobach has long crusaded against the essentially nonexistent scourge of rampant voter fraud and served as the vice chairman of Trump’s voter fraud commission.

We’ve highlighted a critical part of the email (which then goes on to offer draft language for a question). Not asking people whether they are citizens during the census “leads to the problem that aliens who do not actually ‘reside’ in the United States are still counted for congressional apportionment purposes.”

One of the concerns about including a question on citizenship is that people who are not in the country legally will be dissuaded from participating in the count, leading to an undervote of populations of individuals. The census is used for a lot of governmental purposes, including the allocation of things like housing money; having an underestimate of the actual population in a place means that the place then has less money per person than might be needed. Undercounts are already a problem for the Census Bureau. In 2010, there was a concerted effort to reach out to Hispanics in particular to ensure that they were counted. Adding the citizenship question would only make that job harder.

What Kobach is saying, though, is that the problem is the opposite: Immigrants in the country illegally are being counted in the census but shouldn’t be — giving places with more undocumented immigrants larger populations that then boost the number of congressional seats they’re allotted.

He’s saying, in effect, that not including the citizenship question gives states where they live more political power than those states should have. Where do those immigrants live? Mostly in large cities, according to Pew Research Center.

Which means, in effect: mostly in places that tend to vote Democratic.

(If you’re curious, here’s why Pew is confident in its estimates of the population of immigrants in the country illegally.)

If the estimated population in major metro areas is removed from each state’s population — which assumes that all undocumented immigrants are currently counted in the census, which is not true — the resulting change in the apportionment of House seats would mean, for example, that California loses two House seats. Texas would lose one, but the net swing would add two to red states and take two from blue states.

For Kobach, now on the ballot in the Kansas gubernatorial race, that’s a feature, not a bug.

His argument that these immigrants do not actually “reside” in the United States appears to be the sort of rhetoric that has influenced American population estimates from the country’s earliest days. Two-thirds of undocumented immigrants have lived in the country for a decade or longer. For all intents and purposes, these are residents of the United States using government resources the same way as any resident.

It’s not clear if Kobach made the argument about House seats because that’s his primary concern or because he saw it as a compelling argument to make to the White House. Kobach has made uprooting immigrants who voted illegally a centerpiece of his efforts as secretary of state in Kansas. After more than two years of being empowered to prosecute fraud, he’s charged two noncitizens with having voted.

What the Kobach email reveals, though, is that the political effects of asking the question on immigration were part of the calculus on deciding whether to include it — in case there was any question in that regard. There’s an existing problem in counting noncitizen immigrants in the census, and experts argue that including the question will itself drive down response rates to the survey.

Including the question, in other words, will itself help meet Kobach’s goal of getting undocumented immigrants out of population totals (to whatever extent they’re already included) even without anyone actually answering it.