In politics, the year 2020 is mostly talked about in relation to the presidential election. However, another important event for American democracy will happen that year and is stirring up its own controversy: the census. The Trump administration announced last year that it wants to add the question “Is this person a citizen of the United States?” to the census form. After a federal judge blocked the change, arguing it would lead to severe undercounting of the US population, the case has made its way to the Supreme Court. If the Court chooses to allow the citizenship question on to the census, it would deprive millions of political representation and be an act of partisan degradation.
So why is the census so important? The Constitution mandates an “actual enumeration” — an effort to count everyone in the US — every 10 years. The census data is then used to determine many pivotal aspects of the country’s representative system, including apportioning seats in the House of Representatives, determining legislature districts, and determining how many votes each state gets in the electoral college.
The Pew Research center estimates that around 10.7 million undocumented immigrants currently reside in the US. The Census bureau estimates that adding a citizenship question to the census could result in 6.5 million people not being counted — about the population of Tennessee. If this happens, it could reduce the number of congressional seats held by states with high populations of foreign-born residents, like California. In fact, if only citizens were counted in California, it would reduce the state’s number of representatives in the House by four. The citizenship question would generally weaken the political power of the most populous states in the country and the cities where immigrants are most densely clustered.
States like California and cities with high populations of undocumented immigrants tend to favor Democratic candidates. That is why it is not hard to see the motivation behind the citizenship question for what it is — a grab for political power by the Trump administration. The citizenship question signals to Trump’s base his continuous support for nativist policies. But in potentially taking away representation from certain districts or states, it goes much further. In How to Save a Constitutional Democracy, Ginsburg and Huq discuss partisan degradation — when a party focuses on undermining the legitimacy of competing parties, including through restricting the other party’s ability to compete fairly. Using this citizenship question to decrease the power of typically Democratic districts and states would thus constitute the Republicans undermining the legitimacy of the Democratic party.
The citizenship question also flies in the face of the Constitution. The 14th Amendment says the House of Representatives must be apportioned based on the “whole number of persons in each state.” The Supreme Court has ruled for decades that the “whole number” includes non-citizens as well as citizens. Violating this Supreme Court precedent would be a shocking use of a democratic organ for partisan degradation.
Beyond deciding the distribution of representatives and the drawing of districts, census data also decides how the federal government treats states. In 2015, the federal government provided about $590 billion to states from different federally funded programs. That funding was allocated based on data gathered from the 2010 census. Being left off of the census, therefore, means a district or state could get less money for infrastructure, schools, or other projects that might need it. The citizenship question is therefore poised to not only take away electoral representation, but also to prevent actual beneficial government action from reaching communities with high populations of undocumented immigrants.
The Supreme Court is set to hear the citizenship question case this week. If the Court wants to preserve accurate representation and federal funding of the country, it must prevent the question from being put on to the census. If it does not, another example of partisan degradation, in addition to a substantive loss of power for vulnerable communities, will have taken hold over American democracy.
*Photo by Danne, “Untitled. American Flag”, Creative Commons 2.0 License.