Commerce dept. drops citizenship question from census, Trump remains defiant

Wilbur Ross
U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross appears before the House Oversight and Reform Committee on March 14, 2019 in Washington, DC. Ross testified about ongoing preparations for the 2020 Census, and with it, the addition of a citizenship question. | Mark Wilson/Getty Images

U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross confirmed Tuesday that the Trump administration has dropped its plan to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, only to be contradicted by a mid-day tweet Wednesday from President Donald Trump.

“The News Reports about the Department of Commerce dropping its quest to put the Citizenship Question on the Census is incorrect or, to state it differently, FAKE!,” the president wrote on Twitter. “We are absolutely moving forward, as we must, because of the importance of the answer to this question.”

President Donald Trump
President Donald J. Trump, Tuesday, June 25, 2019, in the Oval Office of the White House. | Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead, Flickr

The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that the department confirmed they had sent the census text to the printer without the controversial question. It was unclear Wednesday whether President Trump has ordered them to rescind that order, which came a week after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled temporarily against the question’s inclusion.

The U.S. Supreme Court said at the time that the department had not provided a robust enough justification to ask census-takers whether they are U.S. citizens. In a tweet after that ruling, President Donald Trump said he had “asked the lawyers if they can delay the Census, no matter how long” until the question’s status was secured.

The president lamented the decision in another tweet late Tuesday night that contained hints of Wednesday’s defiance toward his department, calling it a “very sad time for America.”

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.) said in a statement Tuesday that dropping the question “clears the way for the Bureau to focus on getting an accurate count, conduct community outreach to promote full participation, and execute all its operations in a way that uses taxpayer dollars responsibly.” Earlier this year, Peters sponsored a bill that would subject changes to the Census to additional scrutiny and research.

Ross said in a statement Tuesday, “I respect the Supreme Court but strongly disagree with its ruling regarding my decision to reinstate a citizenship question on the 2020 Census. … My focus, and that of the bureau and the entire department, is to conduct a complete and accurate census.”

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California, Maryland, the District of Columbia, and a group of 16 states led by New York had each sued Ross and the Department of Commerce over the citizenship question, the latter case leading to the Supreme Court’s opinion last week. 

Agustin Arbulu, executive director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, said, “Work still needs to be done, but [removing the citizenship question is] one less issue to be concerned with” regarding the census.

The census determines apportionment of congressional seats to the 50 states, based on population. Michigan is widely expected to lose one of its 14 seats after the 2020 census, even after the removal of the citizenship question. Experts feared an undercount if it had been added, which was widely expected to help Republicans and hurt Democrats electorally.

High stakes for Michigan as SCOTUS grapples with census question

Critics of the citizenship question said that it may have not only discouraged non-citizens, who are legally required to be counted under the Constitution, from participating, but others in “hard-to-count” communities with low response rates.

Nancy Wang, executive director of the voter advocacy group Voters Not Politicians, noted in a statement: “The census impacts all Michigan communities, from federal funding on roads, schools, and safe drinking water to how we draw election districts and how many representatives we have in Congress. We’re encouraged the census will proceed on time and support every effort to make sure every person in Michigan is counted.”

Kimball Brace, president of the D.C.-based consulting firm Election Data Services, said that although the removal of the citizenship question would increase the likelihood of a massive undercount, the risk still remains — and that citizenship may still play a factor in congressional redistricting.

“The decision should on its face at least cut down on people’s fear of answering the census,” Brace told the Advance, “but there’s already a concern over what hasn’t been done yet by the [Census] Bureau … in terms of making sure there’s a complete count.” 

Census protesters
Protesters gather outside the U.S. Supreme Court as the court hears oral arguments in the Commerce vs. New York case April 23, 2019 in Washington, DC.| Win McNamee/Getty Images

“There’s always the potential for an undercount, the question is just how large is it?,” Brace asked, before pointing out that although congressional apportionment must include citizens and non-citizens, the inclusion of the latter is left to states’ discretion when redistricting. 

According to Brace, non-citizens could potentially be identified by matching census data with administrative citizenship data.

“Even with an independent commission like in Michigan, what data will they use if there are two sets of numbers? Will the commission members split on party lines?… Basically, it ain’t over yet,” he said.

In June, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer established the state’s Census Complete Count Committee, a group of 60-plus members within the state Department of Technology, Management and Budget (DTMB). 

“It is critically important for all Michiganders to participate in the 2020 Census count and this committee will make sure our residents are informed across all communities throughout the state,” Whitmer said in a statement when announcing the committee’s formation. “Our children depend on the federal dollars that come from Census Data and it is our job to make sure we do our best to be counted.”

Derek Robertson
Derek Robertson covers local government, education, health care and the social safety net, and LGBTQ issues. Previously, he wrote for Politico Magazine in Washington, and before that covered local politics in Chicago. He is a Genesee County native and graduate of both Wayne State University, where he studied history, and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. He enjoys film, the Detroit Pistons and his cat. He once competed in the National Spelling Bee, but was eliminated before any potential ESPN appearances.

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