Washington, DC – The Justice Department’s untimely and unnecessary request to the US Census Bureau to add a question to the 2020 Census would destroy any chance for an accurate count, discard years of careful research, and increase costs significantly. (On December 12, 2017, the Department of Justice wrote a letter to Acting Census Director Ron Jarmin requesting a new citizenship question on the 2020 Census.)
Requiring a new topic this late in the preparations for the census is irresponsible because robust testing for new questions in a census-like environment is essential, especially given the probable chilling effect of adding this particular citizenship question to the form. Census preparations are already behind schedule, the final dress rehearsal will kick off in a month, and there simply is no time left to redesign the census form and rigorously test the proposed additional question.
Equally troubling, this request – coming almost a year after the Census Bureau has finalized topics for the 2020 Census, as required by law – suggests that at least some in the administration are trying to jeopardize the accuracy of the 2020 Census in every state and every community by deterring many people from responding, making the data collected in this crucial once-a-decade operation less accurate and useful for all of us.
The Justice Department has never needed to add this new question to the decennial census to enforce the Voting Rights Act before, so there is no reason it would need to do so now. Contrary to the Justice Department’s letter, the Census Bureau has not included a citizenship question on the modern census “short form,” sent to every household, since enactment of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
Estimates of the citizen voting-age population derived from the ongoing American Community Survey, and the so-called census “long” or sample form before that, have been and continue to be acceptable for purposes of civil rights and Voting Rights Act enforcement. Given these plain facts, the entire justification for the request should be viewed skeptically as an attempt to throw a wrench into final planning and preparations for an enumeration that already faces enormous challenges, including inadequate and delayed funding, cyber-security risks, and a climate of fear fanned by anti-immigrant rhetoric.
This new proposed question on the 2020 Census is unnecessarily intrusive and will raise concerns in all households – native and foreign born, citizens and non-citizens – about the confidentiality of information provided to the government and how government authorities might use that information. Asking every household and every person in the country about their citizenship status in the current political environment – when there is no legal basis or need for doing so – will no doubt give many people pause about participating in the census altogether.
Secretary Ross recently testified before Congress that the Census Bureau will need billions of dollars more than originally estimated to conduct a modern, inclusive census. The Justice Department’s proposal to add a new citizenship question would increase census costs even further while decreasing accuracy, because self-response rates are certain to plummet, which in turn will require additional, costly door-to-door visits that still may not spur cooperation or accurate responses. Adding this new question would result in taxpayers spending significantly more for a government undertaking that we know in advance would not be successful.
The stakes of a fair and accurate census are high and all of us – from Congress to governors, mayors, and school board officials, to business owners and nonprofits serving the most vulnerable in our communities – will have to live with any flawed results for the next 10 years. Therefore, we urge Secretary Ross to deny the request made by the Justice Department, which would threaten a fair and accurate decennial census.