How to Break the Census
The. Okay. So Honey you've been covering the twenty cents for how long now two years full-time. You said you stay on the twenty twenty census. I think everyone should stand. The twenty twenty cents is. Hunslet long a reporter for NPR. These are numbers that are going to affect everyone's lives in the US for the next ten years this determines how many congressional seats toll college votes. Each day gets if that's too wonky for you. This is about how money federal tax dollars are distributed to local communities for schools for roads for Medicare for Medicaid name. A public service it's likely funding for it is likely guided by census numbers, and so this is a really important data set that really sets up the reality that all of us have to live under in the US until twenty thirty. This week. The census went to the supreme court, not meant Honda did to lawyers were arguing over just seven words that the commerce secretary Wilbur Ross wants to add to the questionnaire is this person a citizen of the United States. This has been kind of a nightmare scenario citizenship question being added to the twenty twenty cents is a lot of folks within the census watcher community have been very very concerned because this is long known to be a very sensitive question and question that some groups have advocated for to put onto the senses. And the census bureau has always shied away from doing it and try to make a case to say this would harm the accuracy of this headcount today at the rim court how big of a deal is this hearing. This is a very big deal. Today. Honsi long is here to get all of us to pay a little more attention to the census this one day of arguments. The supreme court implications for years to come. I'm Mary Harris. You're listening to one next stay with us. 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Gobbled dot com slash what next. So the Trump administration has been fighting over the census question for more than a year. Now Honda's keeping his eye on cases in New York, California, Maryland oral arguments supreme court Tuesday and hunting was right there. Craning his neck trying to see what was going on. This was only my first day at the supreme court. But all the other reporters were telling me, usually there are not that many reporters waiting in the pressroom lining up trying to get a seat inside the court room. I was in the overflow section in this kind of hallway. So a full house because this has major implications. What the supreme court Desai's about the fate of this citizenship question. Whether or not is stays on the census as a Trump administration has added or it is removed. That decision will have major implications on the twenty twenty senses and census bureau research says if it is included it is likely to discourage households with non-citizens, and then gluts some citizens from participating the census. Let's give a quick. Refresher for folks who don't remember exactly what the controversy is here. So this started when back in twenty seventeen is that right? This became public at the end of twenty seventeen in December. When propublica published a copy of a Justice department letter to the census bureau that formerly requested a citizenship question to be added to the twenty twenty senses. The Justice department said in this letter that it wanted a citizenship question in order to use responses from it to better enforce part of the Voting Rights Act a section to the Voting Rights Act, which has provision prevent discrimination against racial language minorities in order to enforce that part of the law. The federal government needs to have citizenship data, and the fact is the government has citizenship. Data collects it from what's known as the American community survey. It's another census bureau survey, it only collected from a sample of households rather than trying to reach every household in country like the census does, but that has been the way the Voting Rights Act section two Voting Rights Act has been enforced. Every since the Voting Rights Act was passed in nineteen sixty five. And so when this letter became public and rumors of a citizenship question being added by the Trump administration, those rumors became real in terms of actual formal request to the census bureau, there are a lot of concerns. And also a lot of skepticism and and bewilderment within the voting rights community. Lots of attorneys who bring voting rights cases. They don't see a data problem. They don't see a need for more detailed citizenship. Data collected from every household in the country through a citizenship question. But this is what the Trump administration has said at the beginning publicly. Why wanted to add this question on the twenty twenty census? Can I ask you a question? This letter from the department of Justice was it truthful. Three federal judges have ruled that the reasoning explained this letter the Voting Rights Act us as justification for adding this citizenship question to the twenty twenty senses. They've basically said that was a sham justification that's wording that a federal judge in New York US district judge Jesse Furman us in his opinion. Other judges used different ways of basically saying the Voting Rights Act is not the real reason why the Trump administration wants to add this question on twenty twenty cents is based on the internal emails memos and testimony of the Trump administration that they provided as part of multiple lawsuits over this question. So you've looked at some of these emails from Wilbur Ross in particular, what do they say about the actual motivations here? And what the actual time line was to request this question. Get added. Well, we learned through these documents through these lawsuits that commerce secretary Wilbur Ross who over. Seizes census bureau apparently had this idea to add a citizenship question shortly after he was confirmed as commerce secretary. So this is early in the Trump administration. This is in early twenty seventeen and he said that that idea preceded him that there were other senior Trump administration officials who raised this idea of adding a citizens of question to the twenty twenty senses. And soon after he took over the Commerce Department, there are emails a trail of emails showing that there is this thread, this interest that he has asking questions of staff and emails coming in from former Kansas sectors. Stay Chris co Bach. Former vice share President Trump's now defunct voter fraud commission, the fem- that ties through this communication is apportionment really wonky term about how congressional seats are divided up among the states after each census the number of congressional seats. Each day gets is determined by the population count from the census that process. Known as apportionment specifically the question will Ross head at one point early in his time at the Commerce Department was whether or not unauthorized immigrants are included in the census numbers us four portion mint the answer to that is yes census bureau has long included unauthorized immigrants in the appointment count for the census that the constitution requires a count of every person living in the country. It does not specify citizens. So regardless of citizenship status Gration status. It all depends on if you're considered living in the country and the census bureau considers unauthorized immigrants living in the country. And so they are included. But this was a concern. A problem is what Chris Kobe called it in an Email to Wilbur Ross. Chris Bach is known for having all sorts of voting rights shenanigans and his background. Yes. This is definitely part of his portfolio of interests. And he said that he wanted to add a citizenship question that. Went a little bit further than what the Trump administration has added. It seems to me just looking at who was talking to who it's clear what the motivation is. And the fact that they were talking about apportionment because crisco back Chris Quebec is known for trying to restrict who can vote. And why? And so the fact that he's involved in these conversations, and the fact that they're talking about abortion meant makes the motivations seem really really clear, but the Trump administration has argued that this question about citizenship has been in the census for a long time. Like since the eighteen hundreds is that true. The census has a very complicated history. And to the statement abroad, general statements like that really obscures how complicated it really is. I've looked back at the census forms the first time the census bureau asked about a question about citizenship status was back in eighteen twenty. And since then, it's sometimes come off the senses, come on, the census, the wording has changed. Sometimes only folks born outside the US were asked about whether or not they were citizens, whether they were naturalized citizens sometimes every household was asked about citizenship. Sometimes it was only a sample of households was asked about citizenship. So it's a very complicated history. The Trump administration is trying to make this argument that it's not so unusual basically their argument that to ask about citizenship. Wh- what is concerning amongst former census bureau directors who've spoken out against the citizenship question that the Trump administration wants to add for twenty twenty is that there is research showing that this is particularly. Sensitive question in this current political climate and that asking this question risks, some people in the country not participating in the census. Secondly, the census bureau has recommended that if the Trump administration does indeed want more detailed citizenship data to better enforce Voting Rights Act than the way to do that is not to add a citizenship question. The way to do that is to compile existing government records from other federal agencies such as department of homeland security State Department social security administration, and that those records compiled together would be more accurate less expensive than adding a citizenship question. What's unusual? This is according to the census bureau officials is that when the census bureau brought up this alternative way of producing more accurate and less expensive citizenship. Data the Trump administration. Specifically the Justice department says. Said it did not want to meet with the census bureau about that alternative. And in fact, a whole bunch of former census bureau directors have come out against this question. Right six in fact. Yes, seems like a lot it is a lot and they have served under both democrat again Republican administrations. And then you have these rulings in New York, and California and the ruins are direct. One of the judges says that this is a veritable smorgasbord of classic violations of something called the APA the administrative procedure act. So what are what is that judge arguing the Trump administration did wrong here? This is US district judge Jesse Furman in New York. He was the first judge to issue ruling and carried out a courtroom trial. He's essentially arguing that commerce secretary will Ross who oversees the census bureau misused his authority over the census, congress has delegated a lot of decisions about the census to the. For secretary to kind of be the final decider and judge firmness found as well as judges in California as well as Maryland that how this question was added to the twenty twenty cents is violated a variety of procedures that there is a process for adding a new question to the twenty twenty senses one of which is to do extensive testing before adding a new question to a census form because a census form like any survey is very sensitive delicate tool just tweak in a word in the ordering of a question. What can be seen as a very small change could have an outsize effect on how people respond to a census and this citizenship. Question has not been tested on a twenty twenty cents is for is that rare. Yes. Yeah. So today, you've watched these cases move through the Justice system. You're at the supreme court. Set the scene a little bit. What was it like this morning? The arguments starts and immediately almost immediately Justice Sonia Sotomayor your starts peppering. The Trump administration's attorney US solicitor general with questions and essentially criticizing his arguments for why the Trump ministration wanted to add this question, and it's just a vacation for the question. Eventually, you you got a sense that the justices based on their comments base from their questions really walked in. It seemed like with their minds made up on where they stand on this question of whether or not the twenty twenty cents is can include a citizenship question. You've covered this story for such a long time. I'm sure you've talked to folks on every side of this issue. So when it kind of became clear, how the justices were feeling about this issue. Did you reach out to immigrant rights groups? Did you reach out to some of your sources you've been talking to? Over the last bit of time. Like, I wonder if they're starting to think like, okay, if in June, we learned there will be a citizenship question. What do we do? I think those are conversations that are happening right now. There are a lot of balls in the her right now, there are a lot of other factors about the senses that sensors watchers are concerned about in addition to the citizenship question. There's no questions about whether or not the census bureau, we'll get enough funding, and it will certainly need more funding to hire more workers, maybe and maybe to change his advertising campaign if there is a citizenship question those are looming questions for the census bureau. That's why they're doing a field. Test of a twenty twenty cents is formed for the first time with citizenship question starting in June with about a half million households. They're trying to figure out exactly how do households. How would they respond to a twenty twenty cents way to citizenship question? I wonder if this ends up impacting the census in some way, like I could see activists here saying everyone should answer. I'm not a citizen because that's a way to kind of express. How you feel about this? And I wonder if something like that happens if people don't respond, what would happen, then the worst case scenario is that the census bureau would feel could not responsibly release data that it feels is at all Representative of the country's population. Because it is so because the data so unreliable because people are giving an accurate information or not enough people are participating, and maybe they've tried really hard. Even if you know, you don't self respond yourself in participate yourself that even they sent out all these workers go knocking on your door and play all the television ads and have community events to encourage you to participate in the census. But ultimately. They don't have enough people participating. That's the worst case scenario that they just don't have enough data reliable data in order to put out numbers about various demographic topics in addition to the nation count. Hans thank you so much for putting this in perspective. You're welcome. Honsi long is a correspondent for NPR's national desk. All right. That's the show. What next is hosted by me, Mary Harris and produced by Mary Wilson Jason billion and Anna Martin de like the show love it just like a little bit leave us a rating or view on apple podcasts. It helps other people find us, and we love it when they do that. Okay. Thanks for listening talk to you tomorrow.