Counting on the Census

Supreme Court blocks the citizenship question…for now

Thanks to a 5-4 decision in Department of Commerce v. New York, the addition of a question asking for the citizenship status of those surveyed in the U.S. census has been blocked.

For now. We should hope it stays this way for a lot of reasons.


A political census

The census has always been political. Its very origins were in making sure states were proportionately represented in the Electoral College and Congress according to the number of persons in the states.

That’s “persons,” not voters, or even citizens. The shameful “Three-Fifths Compromise”—which counted enslaved people in a way that benefited the Southern states—is rooted in this fact.

While the census is political by design, the Trump Administration has been attempting to inject a new partisanship into the counting by adding the question on citizenship status. The original stated rationale from former Attorney General Jeff Sessions was that the question would help enforce the Voting Rights Act, ensuring that so-called “majority-minority” districts are reflective of eligible voters. However, subsequent information unearthed through litigation revealed that the move was explicitly rooted in a desire to suppress the political power of non-white voters.

In the Supreme Court’s ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts called the Department of Commerce’s Voting Rights Act enforcement rationale “contrived” and stated:

“Accepting contrived reasons would defeat the purpose of the enterprise. If judicial review is to be more than an empty ritual, it must demand something better than the explanation offered for the action taken in this case.”

Making the problem worse

The undercounting of minority populations is already a known problem with the census, but all experts agree that the introduction of a citizenship question would significantly exacerbate that undercounting. Those experts include career employees of the U.S. Census Bureau itself.

A report by the Urban Institute estimates that the introduction of the citizenship question could result in an undercount of the overall U.S. population of up to 1.22 percent. That may not sound like a lot, but it’s equivalent to the combined populations of the cities of Chicago, San Francisco, and Atlanta.

That’s 4 million people missing from the population count, entirely concentrated in minority populations, with the underrepresentation of Hispanic people increasing most severely with the addition of a citizenship question.


Underrepresentation matters

There are innumerable economic and policy consequences to a skewed census, including disproportionate representation of the kind the census was originally designed to prevent. As just one specific example, federal funding for education is tied to census counts of the number of people in poverty. An undercount could mean that areas with the greatest need for additional support are shorted billions of dollars.

Beyond policy makers, academics and other researchers rely on census data to identify and track population trends; businesses use it to better understand their markets; and non-profits draw on census data to identify underserved communities. Wherever demographics matter, we rely on a comprehensive count of the population.

At Willow, we’re worried about the impact undercounting would have on our ability to provide our clients insights based on accurate data. When we structure a quantitative survey, we determine our sampling strategy for respondents based on information derived from the census. When clients set strategy based on research, they need confidence that the world they’re operating in has been described as accurately as possible. Even a small difference can have big impacts in the data, sort of like how miscalculating the launch angle for a trip to the moon by millimeters at the start of the journey will result in missing the target by hundreds of miles at the end.


Keeping our fingers crossed

Because of its size and scope, it is impossible to do a “perfect” census, but it is vitally important to try to make it as accurate and representative as possible. Professionals in the U.S. government have been planning this count for years. Partisan political maneuverings have upset this planning to the detriment of everyone.

For the moment, we can breathe a sigh of relief, but Justice Roberts’ ruling seems to leave open the possibility that if the Commerce Department crafts a rationale that is not based on such an obviously false pretext, the question could be allowed.

For the sake of the country, we hope that the census is allowed to go forward using a methodology that provides for the most accurate count of all residents of  the United States of America.

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