We’ve come a long way since the first U.S. Census in 1790 counted a population of 3,929,326, much smaller than the 308,745,538 counted in 2010.
The next census count is already controversial. The Trump administration has insisted the questionnaire include a question asking whether the respondent is a U.S. citizen. Lower courts have ruled there should be no such question, as did a previous U.S. Supreme Court.
Now, with a conservative majority on the high court, the decision seems to favor a 5-4 vote for adding the citizenship question. At least that’s what early discussions among the justices seem to indicate.
There is a strong partisan angle to adding the citizenship qualifier. For one thing, people in this country illegally likely will refuse to participate, which theoretically could reduce a true census count by 12 million or more. The distribution of federal funding is based on the national head count, as are seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. If the citizenship question is part of the 2020 count, several states, including California, could lose House seats.
As to the question of who should be counted, Section 2 of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states, without equivocation: “Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed.”
The operative words in Section 2 are “counting the whole number of persons in each State,” which means everyone willing to be counted, not just U.S. citizens.
Here’s the thing about having a conservative majority on the Supreme Court. Ideologically, conservatives tend to follow the rules as established by the Constitution. The question then becomes, what is unclear about that statement in the 14th Amendment? If the citizenship question is added, the 2020 count will lack validity, because it clearly violates the intent stated in the 14th Amendment.
But perhaps more importantly, many jurisdictions will lose a lifeline to a lot of federal funding. For example, Santa Barbara County officials reckon an inaccurate population count could cost the county and many of its agencies more than $40 million over the next decade.
It does little good to base a count on only those who are citizens, because so many non-citizens live and work in this country, buying goods and services from local businesses, and paying taxes to all levels of government. The citizenship question essentially erases these people from the books.
An accurate census count also means much more. Policy makers use it to allocate funds for health-care services, public education, transportation and emergency-response services. Planning for new roads and other basic infrastructure rely on knowing exactly how many people are to be served. Businesses use census data to develop their marketing strategies.
A lot of what makes America great depends, mightily, on knowing exactly how many people live where. The representation question is critically important, because legal or not, people living in the United States deserve a voice at all levels of government.
The Trump administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration has stirred strong emotions on both sides. Adding a citizenship question to the census will not make that situation better. The problems are so obvious that six former Census directors, from both Democratic and Republican administrations, have warned the president that adding the citizenship question is a mistake that could have long-lasting and negative consequences.
It will be very strange, indeed, if justices on the highest court in the land refuse see this for what it is.