Supreme Court Right to Block Bad Reason For Citizenship Question, Say Ex-Directors of Census Bureau

In the wake of a Supreme Court decision Thursday temporarily blocking the addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 census, former Census Bureau directors have criticized the Commerce Department for the decision-making process that led the Supreme Court to put the plans on hold.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the Census Bureau, previously said the Justice Department requested he add a question about U.S. citizenship status on the 2020 form in order to better enforce the Voting Rights Act.

"The 2010 census did not have a citizenship question, and yet, relying on other data, the Voting Rights Act was able to be enforced throughout the ten year period, and no one denies that," former Census Bureau Director Robert Groves, who served in the Obama administration during the printing of the 2010 census, told Newsweek. "So the argument that we needed the question to enforce the Voting Rights Act has little ground."

The court's ruling on Thursday let stand a Manhattan judge's order that the Census Bureau better explain its reasoning for including the question. In January, U.S. District Court Judge Jesse Furman found that the Commerce Department's timeline for its own explanation did not match the administrative record, imperiling the agency's ability to defend its decision on the citizenship question.

"Based on the foregoing record, the Court finds — by well more than a preponderance of the evidence — that Secretary Ross had made the decision months before DOJ sent its letter on December 12, 2017," District Judge Jesse Furman wrote in January.

The Supreme Court cast similar skepticism on Ross's explanation for how the decision came about, calling it a "distraction."

Steve Murdock, who served as President George W. Bush's Census Bureau director from 2007 to 2009, thought, just as the courts in this case did, that Ross's explanation was little more than a veneer.

"I could not see that there was a good or close connection with the [Voting Rights Act]," he told Newsweek. "I think most people looking at it were having a hard time making that closure between the two."

Murdock said that the inclusion of the citizenship question would spell harm to states with the largest Hispanic populations, resulting in the "loss of some political clout" because of the way Hispanic families would be discouraged from answering the survey, leading to an undercount.

"It gets down to an issue of 'Do we count everybody or do we count [just some people],'" he said. "There's nothing in the Constitution that says we do a count of only U.S. citizens. It says we do a count of all persons residing. Changing that is really a change in the interpretation of the Constitution."

Demonstrators rally at the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC, on April 23, 2019, to protest a proposal to add a citizenship question in the 2020 Census. MANDEL NGAN/Getty

The Census Bureau in June determined that the addition of a citizenship question would reduce the response rate among households with non-citizens by up to 8 percent, a stark increase over the bureau's previous estimate of 5.8 percent. Dale Ho, an attorney for the ACLU, said that this would correspond with an undercount of nine million people.

Groves worried that the relatively hasty implementation of the citizenship question—which has not appeared on the census form for nearly 70 years—did not follow a process commensurate with the importance of the survey.

"The argument against the recommendation to add it was based on the fact that the question had really not been tested in the context of the census," he said. "It wasn't unlike a new drug for improving a health condition. We would never invent a drug compound and immediately use it. We'd go through a series of clinical trials. The same logic applies to measurement of humans."

A critical factor looming over Thursday's decision was a fast-approaching theoretical deadline that, the Census Bureau had argued, required the justices to put the issue to rest. The government has said the bureau must know by July 1 whether to include the question to be able to begin printing census materials. Others, including one of the bureau's own scientists, have disputed that claim.

"There'll be over a billion pieces of material printed," Groves explained. "In 2010, that used up the entire capacity of the printing sector of the United States. This is not a trivial print job."

But printing deadlines should not necessarily be the final arbiter of what is included in the survey, Murdock said.

While "there would be additional costs" to making alterations during or after printing, "it can be done," he told Newsweek.

"I find it hard to believe that the printing is really a sticking point," he said.