WASHINGTON ― Democrats and voting rights advocates are alarmed by the Trump administration's plan to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, fearing it will suppress votes and unfairly shift electoral power to rural states. But the move could also mean negative electoral consequences for populous states that voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election.
The decennial census, the gold standard in government data, has not asked about citizenship since 1950. Those who oppose the Commerce Department's plan to add such a question say it will make people less likely to respond to the survey, especially in communities with large populations of immigrants. The Trump administration's aggressive rollback of immigrant-friendly policies may add to the reluctance.
"We strongly believe that adding an untested question on citizenship status at this late point in the decennial planning process would put the accuracy of the enumeration and success of the census in all communities at grave risk," six former directors of the Census Bureau wrote in a letter to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on Tuesday.
Accuracy of census results is critical. Data produced by the survey helps determine how federal and local government funding is distributed, including money for emergencies, housing, education, health care and transportation.
The census also helps determine representation at all levels of government. Undercounting, for example, could shortchange how congressional seats are apportioned among the 50 states. Because most undocumented immigrants in the U.S. reside in large metropolitan areas, populous states like New York, California, Texas, and Florida may face the greatest repercussions from a citizenship question, potentially costing them electoral college votes in presidential elections.
"If I am a strategic Republican congressional partisan right now, I am livid at this," Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and a former deputy assistant attorney general under President Barack Obama, told HuffPost. "Because what this reliably does is make sure that areas where people are afraid, where there are fast-growing communities, are likely to be undercounted, and those are precisely the areas where Republicans are likely to be in control of redistricting after the next census. ... But if there's not a full count, those are presumptively Republican seats that are gonna vanish."
Fast-growing states are projected to gain congressional seats after the 2020 census. Texas, a Republican stronghold, stands to gain three or four congressional districts, and Florida should gain two. Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina and Oregon should each gain one, according to estimates by Election Data Services based on the latest census data.
A count that excludes non-citizens, however, could reverse some of those gains. California would lose three seats in 2020, Florida and Texas would each lose two, and Arizona would one seat, according to projections by demographer Dudley Poston of Texas A&M University and Amanda Baumle, a sociologist at the University of Houston.
Republican lawmakers dismissed criticism of adding a citizenship question to the census, saying it wiill give a more accurate picture of the U.S. populace.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), in a statement Tuesday, hailed the move as a "reasonable, commonsense" step, adding that "it is imperative that the data gathered in the census is reliable, given the wide ranging impacts it will have on U.S. policy."
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) also shrugged off the prospect of electoral repercussions in 2020, arguing that including undocumented people in the count diluted the voting power of legal residents.
The Constitution, however, simply requires a count of the "whole number of persons in each State." At least 12 states, including California and New York, say they will challenge the Trump administration's move on constitutional grounds, arguing they stand to lose billions of dollars in federal funding as well as fair representation in Congress if the census asks respondents about their citizenship.
But the problem could be particularly acute in Texas, which is notoriously hard to count and contains many poor and minority counties. The state also has three metro areas with the largest populations of people living in this country illegally: Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth and Austin.
"This isn't about politics, it's about Texas receiving its fair share of resources and representation. It is not a Democratic issue or a Republican issue ― it's a Texas issue," Democratic state Rep. César J. Blanco, who represents an area of El Paso, said in a statement on Tuesday. He called on Gov. Greg Abbott (R) to join the lawsuit against the Trump administration.
Texas GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak acknowledged a possibility that a citizenship question in the 2020 census could negatively affect the state. But he argued that "the upside of getting a more accurate count [of the state's population] outweighs the downside of risking a new congressional seat."
"Is there a risk to the state of Texas in that perspective? Yes," Mackowiak added. "But again, my guess is … that among the populace and the elected officials, this is going to be popular."
Even Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who has long claimed without proof there is widespread voter fraud by noncitizens, conceded that adding the question to the census could affect the apportioning of congressional districts in Republican states.
Kobach said Tuesday he suggested to Trump last year that the administration consider adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census. He claimed some states with large immigrant populations, like California, have had their "congressional seats inflated by counting illegal aliens."
Asked whether Texas numbers also may be inflated, Kobach said he was not sure.
"There may be some," he said.
Sam Levine contributed reporting.