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1980 Census Form citizenship questions

Will the Supreme Court Get It Right on the Census Citizenship Question?

Court watchers seem to think that the Supreme Court will end up overturning a lower court ruling and allow the Trump administration to add a citizenship question on the 2020 Census.

The New York Times, for example, led its coverage of the arguments on Tuesday by saying: “The Supreme Court’s conservative majority seemed ready on Tuesday to allow the Trump administration to add a question on citizenship to the 2020 census, which critics say would undermine its accuracy by discouraging both legal and unauthorized immigrants from filling out the forms.”

Let’s leave aside the newest euphemism for illegal immigrants. (Immigrants who are here illegally are “unauthorized”? Does that mean bank robbers can say they’re just making an “unauthorized withdrawal”?)

The practical case against adding a citizenship question falls apart once you start looking at it.

Here are the main arguments:

Asking about citizenship has no place in the census.

Except, it’s always been a part of the census, until 2000. Up until 1950, in fact, it was included on the census form sent to everyone. After that, the Census Bureau continued to ask about citizenship on the so-called long form, which went out to a subset of households.

The government still asks about citizenship in its American Community Survey, which replaced the long form and is an annual survey that goes out to more than 3 million people a year.

Critics also say that there’s no reason to include a citizenship question, because the constitution only mandates that Congress count the total population of the country. But the government has always included a host of additional questions in the census form  — from indoor plumbing, ability to read, occupation, race, education level, or whatever else the government was interested in knowing about at the time.

It will cause an undercount.

As the Times puts it, the concern is that asking a citizenship question as part of the census will “undermine its accuracy” by lowering the response rate. That might be true. But the Census Bureau deals with undercounts every 10 years. In fact, in 2000, only 66% mailed back the census form.

That’s why it sends out an army of census takers every decade to knock on the doors of households that didn’t send the form back. A few extra doors for them to knock on is hardly an insurmountable problem.

What’s more, the Census Bureau has done things in the past knowing that it dramatically lowered response rates. The response rate for the long form, for example, was much lower than the short form. But the bureau nevertheless sent the long form out in every 10 years from 1970 to 2000.

From here, the arguments against a census citizenship question get even weaker.

Critics say that a less accurate census will hurt businesses that rely on the data to make business decisions.

“The U.S. Census informs and affects just about every facet of our lives. Policymakers use it to plan for emergency response, health care resource allocation, education and transportation. We use it to plan our roads and bridges, and to plan for child care and senior care. It’s how we decide how to allocate our annual federal budget and whether citizens with limited proficiency in English have the right to ballots and election materials in their native tongue. Businesses use Census data to find new markets and determine future development or geographic relocation,” writes Jorge Luis Vasquez Jr. is associate counsel for LatinoJustice in USA Today.

Except, that’s not exactly true. Like every other critic, Vasquez appears to be confusing the 10-year census with the annual American Community Survey (ACS) — which as we said, still asks about citizenship. Because the ACS goes out to 3.5 million people every year, it provides incredibly rich and up to date data that has tremendous statistical reliability. That, not an actual enumeration, is what businesses and communities need to make plans.

Here’s what the Census Bureau itself says about the ACS. “Through the ACS, we know more about jobs and occupations, educational attainment, veterans, whether people own or rent their home, and many other topics. Public officials, planners, and entrepreneurs use this information to assess the past and plan the future.”

The Trump administration says it wants to add a citizenship question to help enforce the Voting Rights Act. Isn’t it enough to want an exact count of the number of people in this country who can claim citizenship?

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John Merline

Veteran journalist John Merline was Deputy Editor of Commentary and Opinion at Investor's Business Daily. Before IBD, he launched and edited the Opinion section of AOL News, and was a member of the editorial board of USA Today, where he continues to be a regular contributor. He’s been published in the Washington Post, National Review, Detroit News, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Forbes, and numerous other publications. He is regular commentator on the One America News Network and on local talk radio. He got his start in journalism under the tutelage of M. Stanton Evans.


  • It is fundamental that a country has the right to ask the people within its borders whether they are citizens. Not asking the question to allegedly avoid an under-count of non-citizens seem like the tail wagging the dog. If California is concerned that its federal representation and funding may take a hit because its illegal aliens may not all be counted, well that’s a risk of being a sanctuary state.

  • Will the Supreme Court Get It Right on the Census Citizenship Question?

    Probably not.

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