Accuracy in Media

Sometime this month, the Supreme Court is expected to rule Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross was within his rights to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census, and Democrats and their friends in the media are taking one last shot at stopping it.

Congress did its part Wednesday when the House Oversight Committee voted to recommend holding Ross and Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress for refusing to comply with subpoenas in the committee’s investigation into how and why the question was added.

That followed the move earlier in the day by President Trump to invoke executive privilege to refuse to share documents House Democrats have demanded for their investigation.

The Washington Post’s tack was to accentuate the “scandal angle.” “The census is a sleeping giant of a potential trump administration scandal,” read the headline on Aaron Blake’s piece. The case made by Blake, Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md., and others is that the move to add the question is driven solely by political considerations.

“The stated reason is that it is needed to enforce the Voting Rights Act, but that has never been a huge point of emphasis for the Republican Party. Indeed, GOP officials have worked to dismantle the VRA in recent years,” Blake wrote.  

“The Trump administration claims it needs to ask the question to collect the data for the Justice Department to enforce the Voting Rights Act,” wrote Vox’s Dara Lind and Libby Nelson in “The fight over the 2020 census citizenship question, explained” – subhead: “The battle over a simple question involves both Congress and the Supreme Court. And the stakes are high.”

That is not why the Census Bureau says the question should be asked. Census officials said they are collecting the information to “create data about citizens, noncitizens and the foreign-born population” so “agencies and policymakers can use our published statistics to evaluate immigration policies and laws, understand the experience of different immigrant groups and enforce laws, policies and regulations against discrimination based on national origin. These statistics also help tailor services to accommodate different cultures.”

Blake charges that Republicans are doing this for gerrymandering reasons, even though he admits the apportionment process is “a system the GOP has already gamed to great effect. Given the GOP’s existing advantages, some have wagered that the Democrats would never be able to win back the House until they can win power in key states and redraw some of the maps.”

He says the citizenship question could “dissuade undocumented immigrants from responding (for fear of disclosing their status to the government) and “give Republicans a potential game-changing tool to rejigger maps in the future.”

But what truly has heated up the debate is Democrats think they have found a smoking gun in the hard drives of a recently deceased Republican consultant named Thomas Hofeller, who specialized in assembling population data for redistricting and electoral analysis. Blake says Hofeller “was more involved in this process than we believed,” and the “issue is whether his lobbying for this change and apparent involvement in drafting the Justice Department’s VRA justification obscured what happened behind closed doors.”

But there’s also evidence some other things are going on – noncitizens voting in federal elections, which is patently illegal; Democrats feeling they’re losing their grip on the House majority.

This is the first time since 1950 the Census has asked every respondent this question, but it was on the long-form Census ever since. Other countries, including Australia and the UK, also ask the question.

Moreover, federal law requires the Census to count citizens and non-citizens alike for the purpose of apportioning representation in the House, and no one is prosecuted for replying no to the question. As for opponents’ claims the question will depress response rates, there is no evidence that including the question will have a significant effect on response rates or reliability of the data.

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