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The Supreme Court agreed to hear the census citizenship case. Here’s why that matters.

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)
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Department of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced in March that a question about citizenship would be added to the 2020 Census. Wide-ranging opposition followed — from local and state government officials, members of Congress and former Census Bureau directors, all citing consequences for decades to come.

Historically, the Census Bureau has worked to guarantee the most accurate count of the entire United States population, notwithstanding citizenship. Census-recorded data has been used to determine how to draw congressional districts, allocate federal funds, and for national disaster and epidemic preparedness.

Supporters of the question say its inclusion is logical and necessary to enforce the Voting Rights Act. The current administration’s unabashed hostility toward immigrants has led others to believe that undocumented individuals will hesitate to participate in a survey that asks about citizenship, resulting in a significant undercount of immigrant and minority communities.

Ross, embroiled in a multistate lawsuit to block the question, has been accused of adding it for partisan purposes. Key issues in the case have made their way to the Supreme Court.

The census, which is mandated by the Constitution, may be necessary to a well-functioning democracy, but can this last-minute addition to the survey truly have such dramatic costs?

Is an undercount that big of a deal?

Yes, and one that affects all U.S. residents, including legally documented populations.

The most commonly discussed consequences of an undercount are its effect on congressional districts and federal funding. Robert Shapiro, senior policy fellow at the Georgetown University McDonough School of Business, estimates that more than 24 million people could avoid the 2020 Census to keep their information from being shared with law enforcement. This would affect federal programs, such as Medicaid, Section 8 Housing and school lunch programs.

From an emergency management perspective, although there is an important need for accurate counting, particularly when discussing electoral representation, any discrepancy between the census-reported “official” population and the actual population is problematic, Jeffrey Schlegelmilch, deputy director for the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, told The Washington Post.

Strategic planning begins with survey data, he said, yet public health responders are responsible for entire communities, notwithstanding the census count. Depressed census numbers threaten to undercut funding and create preparation blind spots.

“You only know what you know,” Schlegelmilch noted. “Upstream funding becomes important. If you’re responsible for caring for a whole community of 25,000, and the official number is far less, you’re getting less number per capita to care for them.”

He also explained that public health responders’ ability to interact with all members of a community is necessary to protect it.

“Disasters don’t respect politics. They’re going to affect everyone in the community and not just those enumerated under the census. We need to make sure we have the most accurate counts possible, especially with those that are determining policy and funding to respond to a disaster,” Schlegelmilch said.

Supreme Court will hear arguments concerning Census citizenship question

Were the consequences of the citizenship question considered?

Between 1820 and 1950, a different version of a citizenship question was included on decennial censuses. Since then, it has only appeared as part of the American Community Survey, also administered by the Census Bureau, but annually and to a smaller number of participants.

Typically, new survey questions must go through a lengthy approval process, with the Census Bureau running tests in the years leading up to the count. Accuracy of the count is of utmost importance, according to Juan Pablo Hourcade, a member of the Census Bureau’s Scientific Advisory Committee and associate director for informatics education at the University of Iowa.

“I think of [running and organizing the decennial census] almost as a space mission to Mars. It costs billions of dollars and takes years of planning and testing things to make sure you get everything right,” he said, adding that he was not speaking on behalf of the Committee.

Contrary to the census tradition of testing a question’s impact before adding it, the citizenship inquiry was introduced late, preventing the bureau from fully — or even passably — piloting it, according to the committee’s spring 2018 report.

“It’s like you’ve been planning a space mission for 10 years, and right before the mission you make a significant change to the spacecraft without testing it,” Hourcade said. “Maybe it won’t crash, but you don’t know. It’s a big risk.”

In a Jan. 8, email, Stephen L. Buckner, assistant director for communications at the Census Bureau, wrote to set up a meeting with Ross and Undersecretary Karen Dunn Kelley. Buckner said that he wanted to discuss the “crisis” — defined as “the unprecedented level of public distrust and fear of providing information to the Census Bureau that Census Bureau field representatives are experiencing” — and the bureau’s plans to address it.

Using language from the National Advisory Committee on Racial, Ethnic and Other Populations’ 2017 recommendations to the Bureau, he wrote,* “Historically, one of the Census Bureau’s biggest challenges in promoting public participation in the decennial Census (and other surveys) is to overcome the fear that segments of the public have that the information they provide will not be used to harm them in some way and will not be safe and confidential. … The Bureau staff are experiencing such fear and distrust at levels they have not previously seen.”

Despite this, Ross considered only data through 2016 in opting to include the question of citizenship. Hence, the committee’s official position that its “last-minute inclusion” was ill-advised.

The committee chairman wrote: “Moreover, the empirical evidence that was discussed by Sec. Ross came from data collected in a different data collection context, in a different political climate, before anti-immigrant attitudes were as salient and consequential.”

Americans say they are less likely to fill out census than they were 10 years ago

Where are we now?

Attorneys and politicians across the country are wondering the same.

Ross, originally claiming that the citizenship question was added in response to a Justice Department request and was needed to enforce the Voting Rights Act, is caught up in pending litigation. Emails subsequently emerged that contradicted his initial explanation, but the Supreme Court intervened to temporarily block his deposition last month. The court did allow other depositions and a New York federal trial to proceed.

On Friday, the Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments over whether Ross and others can be compelled to explain their actions.

The court’s timing is curious, because the New York trial is underway, with closing arguments scheduled next week. The Trump administration followed up Friday’s ruling with a letter to the trial judge and an application to an appellate court, asking all final judgments be withheld until the Supreme Court issues its decision next spring.

For now, the outcome remains to be seen. Whatever the ruling, though, timing is of the essence: Census forms must be sent to the printer by June 2019, with or without the added question.

Tara Bahrampour contributed to this report.

* Clarification: A previous version of this story referenced an email that Stephen L. Buckner wrote. Buckner’s email included language that was copied and pasted from the National Advisory Committee on Racial, Ethnic and Other Populations’ 2017 recommendations to the U.S. Census Bureau. This story has been updated.

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