It’ll never rival the fame of all men are created equal, but these days a lot of people are taking a close look at another clause in the Constitution: the Enumeration Clause. The Enumeration Clause requires that the federal government conduct a census every ten years, and then use it to distribute seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and more than $675 billion in federal funds to local, state, and tribal governments.

Something that only comes around every ten years is easy to overlook, and except for the few minutes it takes to fill in the form, that’s what most people do. But since March, when Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross announced his intention to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, a lot of people are paying attention. Whether “Is this person a citizen of the United States?” will be included on the questionnaire is still very much unsettled.

Barbara Anderson, the Ronald A. Freedman Collegiate Professor of Sociology and Population Studies, spent seven years as a member of the Census Scientific Advisory Committee (CSAC)—three of those as the committee’s chair. A congressionally mandated committee, CSAC’s name reflects its charge: It advises the Census Bureau on using scientific developments, such as geospatial and statistical analysis, statistical data collection, and survey methodology, in order to design questionnaires that yield the highest quality results. It makes recommendations on the Census Bureau’s major programs, including the decennial census. Until July 2018, when the Trump Administration did not reappoint her, she chaired the committee that made these recommendations.

As the chair in March 2018, Anderson was preparing to convene the committee’s regular spring meeting when Secretary Ross announced his intention to add the citizenship question. The committee met a few days later.

“About half of our comments and recommendations were about why adding this question was a bad idea,” Anderson says. ”One reason it’s a bad idea is it’s almost certainly going to suppress response.”

Out of the Question

The census is not merely a tally of how many people live where. It’s a portrait of the country’s population by age and race, how we define our families, and who we live with. A community’s responses to the census, in turn, influence things like civil rights policies, equal opportunity programs, and determining whether a community has adequate housing for its residents. It’s the yardstick we use to distribute resources and the key to how we apply them. It’s how we determine local representation in the federal government. If the answers don’t come from the entire community, all of these efforts and expenditures are skewed before they start.

CSAC’s concerns about the citizenship question, Anderson says, were both about the question’s content and its timing. Before the census officially kicks off, it tests the questions by asking them in different ways to see how different formats affect responses. The dress rehearsals give the Census Bureau the chance to train census workers, too. In 2020, for the first time, people can answer the census online, so this time there is also new technology to test. But rather than the three end-to-end tests that were originally planned, only one ran due to budget cuts. “And because the citizenship question came in so late,” Anderson says, “it was not included.”

On April 23, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments about the citizenship question and will try to resolve all of the legal issues surrounding it before the end of its current term—and, hopefully before the go-to-print deadline of June 30, 2019. There are 1.5 billion questionnaires, inserts, postcards, and letters that need to be printed before Census Day—the day respondents are instructed to use as a reference when answering the census’s questions—on April 1, 2020. And that date is no joke. Constitutionally, the deadline can’t be extended.

Down for the Count

There hasn’t been a citizenship question on the census since 1950, which coincided with the end of a steep 20-year drop in the number of foreign-born residents living in the United States. It was also the start of the era in which the Census Bureau’s sampling techniques became more sophisticated and more accurate, which transformed other surveys the Census Bureau administers, such as the American Community Survey (ACS), into reliable sources of high quality data.

The primary argument Secretary Ross has advanced for including the citizenship question is the need to capture better data to enforce the Voting Rights Act. Anderson believes these data can already be found in the ACS.

Since 2005 the ACS has been sent to approximately 3.5 million households every year to collect information that once was included on the long form of the census. Its questions are detailed and cover an expansive range of subjects, such as income, ancestry, home ownership, education, marital history, and occupation. “The ACS is broad and its models are rigorously reviewed,” Anderson says. “We make estimates about all kinds of things using the ACS data all the time.”

Angela X. Ocampo, an LSA Collegiate Fellow in the Department of Political Science, says that the risk of an undercount among immigrant groups might, in fact, actually hinder enforcing the Voting Rights Act. “For example,” she explains, “if a non-English-speaking population’s size reaches a certain threshold, you have to produce ballots and election materials in that language. But if that population doesn’t respond to the census, the trigger to produce such materials isn’t tripped. The argument gets really undermined if you look at its potential impacts.”

Anderson has another serious concern about including the citizenship question. She worries it might be the first step in an effort to change the way congressional districts are apportioned: by drawing districts according to the number of citizens that are old enough to vote rather than by the total population of citizens and noncitizens—a change that could shift power from blue to red states, and from a younger population to an older one.

Who Counts

The Constitution requires the decennial census to count the total population and to use it as the basis for divvying up the nation's 435 congressional districts. Congressional districts are then allocated according to states’ populations, a process known as apportionment.

Congressional districts cannot legally be drawn from populations of voting-age citizens because the census doesn’t collect citizenship data. The ACS does collect citizenship data, but ACS data cannot legally be used to reapportion seats in the House of Representatives. If the census asked the proposed citizenship question, however, the census would have that information.

If districts were determined by voting-age citizens only, Anderson says, estimates predict that five Democratic seats would become Republican seats. States with older populations would be allocated more congressional districts, which would shift power toward those states.

There are already movements afoot to make this change, Anderson says. Alabama, for example, has sued the federal government, arguing that congressional seats should be based on citizen population. A 2016 lawsuit filed against the state of Texas has made the same argument for drawing the state's legislative districts. There are dissenting legal views on the mechanism that could make the switch happen, Anderson says. “But in any case, a citizenship question on the decennial census would be a necessary first step.”

But even if the question only affects the 2020 census, the consequences could still be significant. It could lead to a lack of cooperation from community partner organizations, to a growing distrust for all kinds of government data collection efforts, and to a depressed response among immigrants and undocumented people.

The fear of a depressed response is not just limited to undocumented residents, Ocampo says. It also includes residents who live in mixed-status families. “Even if you are documented, you could live with someone who isn’t and so you would fear for them just as much. Sixty percent of Latinos actually know someone very close to them who is undocumented. Although we don’t know the exact number for Asian Americans, we expect that it is similar. We estimate that something like nine million people live in these sorts of mixed-status families.”

For researchers like herself, Ocampo continues, an undercount creates a flawed foundation on which modeling and projections are based. “It has real implications for the way we understand the U.S. population as a whole, for the integrity of our data, and for the way we conduct research moving forward.”

The question about how, and whether, residents respond, is likely to depend on how the Supreme Court decides who counts.



Images by Ravi Teja Bandaru. Photos courtesy of Barbara Anderson and Angela X. Ocampo.