Presidential Interference with the Census is a Bad Idea

The independence of the Census Bureau could be at risk and with it the accuracy of a vital data source.

February 13, 2017

The independence of the Census Bureau could be at risk and with it the accuracy of a vital data source used not only for redistricting but a wide variety of other government and business functions. That’s because a draft executive order being considered by President Donald J. Trump would meddle with the census and require the Census Bureau to ask questions about people’s citizenship and immigration status in the 2020 census. That, in turn, has fueled concerns among advocates about an undercount if the nation’s immigrant communities – fearful that the information may be used against them or family members – decide not to participate in the census.

The proposed change could hardly come at a worse time. Congress has imposed tight budgetary constraints on the Census Bureau, severely limiting what it can spend on the 2020 count. Design and testing of the 2020 Census, likewise, has been underway for years though some testing late in the process has been stalled because of unfilled funding requests. By interjecting a new requirement and making it more challenging and expensive for a cash-strapped Census Bureau to obtain an accurate count, the executive order would undermine the Bureau’s ability to comply with its constitutional mandate to conduct a count each decade not of citizens or adults, but "the whole number of persons in each State." That count is at the heart not only the constitutionally required reallocation of congressional representation every decade, but of the redrawing of everything from state houses and city council districts to ensure equal representation.

The impact of an undercount could be especially ominous for fast-growing states like Texas with large numbers of immigrants, many of whom are undocumented.  According to the Houston Chronicle, Texas has the second-largest undocumented population immigration in the country, with an estimated 1.5 million undocumented immigrants in the state, trailing only California. Indeed, Texas has rapidly accumulated political power in recent decades precisely because it has been an immigration mecca. Between 2000 and 2010, Latinos alone were two-thirds of the state’s population gain, with African-Americans accounting for most of the rest. As a result, the state received four additional congressional seats. If just the white population growth had been taken into account, Texas would not have gained even one congressional seat. Latino population growth, likewise, is expected to be a prime driver of Texas’ projected gain of 3-4 congressional seats after the 2020 census.

Inaccurate data also could complicate the drawing of the majority-minority districts required under the Voting Rights Act and distort federal funding essential to these communities under formulas that distribute federal funds to the public and make planning decisions for community services. An accurate census count is critical for communities to maximize legislative representation and federal funding.

President Trump’s proposed executive order is unprecedented and deeply worrying. While the Bureau has been susceptible to political meddling and inadequate funding in the past – leading members from both parties to call for making it an independent agency – never before has there been a presidential attempt to interfere with the census so directly. In fact, since 1929, there have been only three issued executive orders relating in any way to the Census Bureau, none of which related to the design of the census or the questions asked. By crossing a long understood line about the professional independence and integrity of the Bureau, President Trump would interfere with collection of an accurate Census count in 2020 and impair public trust, local economies, and fair redistricting.

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