Lack of trust is the most significant barrier to a complete Census count in 2020.  The Secretary of State is leading statewide efforts to build awareness about the coming Census, and I will continue to share information to support those efforts.

We are only months away from the 2020 Census, and Census Bureau personnel are already sending out test forms to some residents.  I heard from one constituent who received one of these forms by mail asking if it was legitimate. This constituent is a well-informed native-born citizen with a lot of experience with government. 

Residents who are not native born – whether properly documented or not — often greet Census Bureau outreach with even greater mistrust.  The President’s daily rhetorical attacks on immigrants further elevate that mistrust. 

The constitutional mandate of the Census Bureau is to count persons
where they live and sleep most of the time” in the United States, with or without documentation.  It will be harder for the Bureau to accomplish that in 2020 than in many of the past 23 decennial Censuses. 

As hard as a complete count is going to be anyway, the Trump administration seems intent on directly interfering with the process with the goal of increasing the number of Republican representatives in Congress.    

The number of representatives in Congress apportioned to each state is a function of the total Census count of persons in the state (without regard to immigration status).  First, every state, even those that are smaller than the average Congressional district, gets at least one member in Congress. Then seats are allocated by a process designed to assure that Congressional Districts in all states are roughly the same in population count.   Undercounting low-trust populations could lead to a state having less representation in Congress.   To the extent low trust populations vote Democratic, then undercounting them will favor a Republican majority in Congress.

Further, the balance of Democrats and Republicans elected to Congress within each state depends heavily on how district lines are drawn.  Congressional district lines are drawn to assure that the population of each district is equal.  Lines will be drawn based on the block level Census counts that come out in April 2021.  Again, if the Census undercounts immigrants or other minorities, then districts will be drawn that give them less representation in Congress.

Almost as soon as he took office, President Trump’s Secretary of Commerce began working to add a question about citizenship status to the Census.  While citizenship questions have been included in some prior Censuses, in recent decades, Census Bureau officials have viewed the question as likely to depress response rates.  In the 2020 climate, according to officials cited by the Justice Breyer (see page 9-13), the question could have a very great effect – perhaps depressing the count of immigrants by hundreds of thousands.

The Supreme Court just rejected the proposed question.   The Secretary had explained his inclusion of the question as having been requested by the Department of Justice for analysis of citizenship in voting rights cases.  But the Court found that this was a pretext since he shopped the idea to a number of agencies before finally getting the Department of Justice to request it.  The Supreme Court said “[W]e cannot ignore the disconnect between the decision made and the explanation given. Our review is deferential, but we are not required to exhibit a naiveté from which ordinary citizens are free.”  A recent expose in the New York Times traced the proposed question back to a now deceased Republican political operative.  That expose was not part of the record before the Supreme Court, but certainly validates the court’s decision.

The question now becomes whether the Trump administration will allow the Census Bureau to move forward and do its critical and constitutionally-mandated job in a timely way.  As Chair of the Senate Redistricting Committee in Massachusetts, I’ll be watching closely and continuing to share information.

Update as of July 11

The final outcome here is that the Trump administration did ultimately take the right course of action, allowing the census to forward without the citizenship question, instead studying citizenship patterns using administrative records.

Responses to Comments (added 2:30PM on July 5)

Based on the range of comments below, I thought I should follow up to clarify some issues. 

Who gets to vote?  The right to vote in national elections belongs to citizens – people who were either born citizens or have made a commitment to the United States and passed the naturalization test.  States or cities could make a different rule for elections to their own offices, but that is not the question at hand and I personally support the fundamental idea that citizenship is a condition for voting.

Which persons count toward apportioning the seats in Congress among the states? The constitution states that representatives shall be apportioned to states based on the “whole number of persons.”  In context it is clear that persons means everyone, whether or not they have the right to vote.  There is little chance that this rule will change as a result of constitutional amendment or Supreme Court decision and I do not believe it should.

Which persons count toward drawing equal-population districts for seats in Congress within a state?  It would be hard to defend using one count for apportionment and a different count for redistricting of congressional districts, so I expect that for congressional redistricting, the “whole number of persons” construct will endure.  Conceivably, a state or locality could successfully defend using a different rule for its own elections, although I do not advocate that.

What difference does it make if immigrants (documented or undocumented) count equally with citizens in legislative apportionment and redistricting?  Whether counted or not, the non-citizens don’t vote and therefore are not going to get as much attention from their elected representatives.   The real consequence is that the voting citizens get a disproportionate vote: In a congressional district that has, let’s say 400,000 non-voting immigrants and 400,000 voting citizens, then the voting citizens get twice as much influence as the citizens in a district that consists of 800,000  voting citizens  – they get 1/400000 of the representative’s campaign attention instead of 1/800000.  Whether that favors Republicans or Democrats in any particular case depends on how the district lines are drawn and what group of citizens is placed in the same district as the non-citizen population.

Can we live with the possibility that any group of citizens might be overrepresented as a result of placement in a district with non-citizens?  My answer is yes: To put the question in perspective, there are other common ways that a particular group of citizens can get outsized influence.  For example, if citizens reside in a district that includes a large prison or is heavily populated by university students, who typically do not vote in state or local elections, then they will have an outsized vote. I would concede that over-representation of citizens (in districts with very high populations of non-citizens, prisoners or students)  could go beyond reasonable levels, and I don’t dismiss the concern out-of-hand, but at this point, my view is that we should keep the rules simple and continue to redistrict based on the count of whole persons.  And, of course, the census is used as a measure of economic and other needs as well as a measure of representation.  The needs of the district are not reduced by the fact that some of the people counted in it are non-voting.

Why has the possibility of asking a citizenship question become a political issue?   It does appear that some strategists in both parties believe that, while districts vary, citizens who are Democrats are more likely to be mixed in with non-citizens in neighborhoods with high concentrations of non-citizens.  In other words, on average, it is Democrats who benefit from the existing “whole persons” rule.  So, if the Supreme Court were to entertain the possibility of redistricting based on citizens only, instead of all persons, the change would advantage Republicans.  Certainly, that was the theory of the Republican strategist most connected to the proposed question – Tom Hofeller.  In my view, even a Supreme Court a couple of seats further to the right could not condone this approach for congressional districts:  The constitution is clear that all persons count for apportionment and probably, indirectly, for federal redistricting.  So the real advantages for Republicans of including the question would come if (a) asking the question were to scare non-citizens away from the census; (b) states were to be permitted to redistrict based on citizen counts. 

Why shouldn’t we ask a citizenship question on the census form? There is nothing per se wrong with asking a citizenship question on the census form.  It is certainly interesting information and has been asked in some prior censuses. The argument I find persuasive, based on the Supreme Court’s recent opinion, is that (a) because of the current climate of fear among immigrants (both documented and undocumented), asking a citizenship question would distort the basic count that is required by the constitution; (b) even if people in fear can be persuaded to complete the census form there is no reason to expect that they will answer a citizenship or documentation question accurately. Adding the question will overall degrade the quality of census responses without adding new accurate information. To the extent we are interested in citizenship rates for informational purposes, there are other administrative datasets that can give us insight.  So, the informational benefit is outweighed by the loss of count accuracy. 

Would the citizenship question tell us how many people are in the United States without documentation? No. It just asks whether a person is a citizen. If the answer is no, no more detail is requested.

While I have carefully considered the feedback I received on the issue, I respectfully continue to believe it is wiser to leave the citizenship question out.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

186 replies on “Trust and the Census”

  1. Senator Brownsberger

    I appreciate your explanation of a complicated political landscape and its strategic decision making. I support your position wholeheartedly.
    However, I suggest we add another very important perpective to this conversation which is that among those numbers who might be classified as non citizens today, there are also many among them who might presently be on the path towards citizenship and voting privileges/responsibilities . We must protect that pathway which is the cornerstone of our democracy.
    This census population we debate about today.. if we were to put a human face and smile on every number we cite.. we create a human portrait.. which changes constantly; it is fluid. When some become citizens, others join the long line and work towards their turn ; patiently … and most remain hopeful. All share the common goal to improve their lives and their childrens’. We must redefine these ‘non citizens’ as our infusion of America’s social capital . Families who are hoping to work permanently to keep our economy going. I call that patriotism at its finest.

    When discussing this policy , let us put a human face on these numbers. Tell their stories…
    They sound a lot like ours.

    Thank you for representing your constituency responsibly.


    Prof. Stephanie Reich
    Back Bay

  2. It seems like many people are lumping all non-documented persons into one category. There is a difference between someone who enters the country legally and then overstays their visa or who crosses the border for the purpose of immigrating versus someone who is seeking asylum because they are in fear of their lives or whose country has been made uninhabitable because of a natural disaster or war or civil war. They should be treated differently. The latter group are following the law in seeking asylum. It’s up to the US government to process those claims expeditiously and fairly and to allow in those whose claims are merited. There is nothing illegal about making an asylum claim. Let’s not paint every non-documented person with the same broad brush.

    1. Asylum laws were never meant to accommodate large cross-continental migrations. At some point, and soon I’m afraid, the people seeking asylum (most don’t qualify for it anyway, because they are just economic migrants) will exceed our ability to absorb them. Our economy is getting automated, and we don’t need masses upon masses of low-skill workers. Our safety net will collapse under their weight. Still, the good-hearted folks never think about the consequences to our country. Do we even have a country anymore – when the needs of foreign nationals are always held higher than those of our own citizens?

      1. Define large. A low skill worker can converted into a high skill one if he/she is willing to be educated. Most 20th century immigrants were low skill workers. Their children and grandchildren are creating companies, making discoveries in medicine and making great art. When we had the opportunity to bring in high skilled workers during the 2oth Century, we often failed to do so especially in the 30s and 40s because of their religious background. Luckily for the US, Oppenheimer and Einstein made it through. Our safety net is weighed down by mostly poor caucasian citizens and non-working elderly citizens ( the US is getting older, not younger). As for the automation revolution it is still 50 years out. Working alongside engineers, I often see the limitations that computers will have to overcome. The concern should be about company and government policies that do not address the future of automation because regardless of the number of non-citizens, that issues needs to be addressed.

  3. Thank you for explaining this so clearly. Thank you also for the article in the Tab that came today.

  4. Will, here’s an article that gets into the weeds, if correct it should get more attention. Its key point: “Never in the 230-year history of the census has the complete-count questionnaire (or its equivalent) asked for the citizenship status of everyone in the country.” Also, the census bureau in the 1970s and 80s resisted adding citizenship questions, with agreement from the courts, because it would substantially inhibit participation and the ability to obtain accurate counts.
    Thank you for launching this discussion.

  5. “The President’s daily rhetorical attacks on immigrants further elevate that mistrust. ”

    I mistrust Democrats in government like you who continue to lie and mis-characterize what our President says! He ONLY makes attacks on illegal immigrants and the many making fraudulent asylum claims to game the law.

    I understand why power-hungry Democrats don’t want the citizenship question. Places with the most illegal immigrants are Democratic districts or states and Democrats want more representatives in Congress. Skip the distractions and just admit this truth.

    You and other Democrats will say and do anything, including lying to oppose Trump, who is simply continuing Obama policies.

    1. Mark, I agree that his primary thrust is against those crossing without documentation, but he really is not very careful about drawing the distinction. Please see this collection of statements about Mexicans. Mexicans, with or without documentation are going to hear those comments with concern. That concern broadly translates into fear about government officials which will make it hard to collect data in Hispanic communities.

      And, more importantly, the proposed citizenship question does not draw the distinction. The question will shed no direct light on the size of the population without documentation.

      I would concede that both parties have political motivations in this conversation, but politics aside, I think the Democrats have the better side of the argument.

      1. The vast majority of Trump’s comments against Mexico concern the crime, violence, and government there, not the hard working people. The article is also very one-sided, without the compliments too.

        We are not getting the best and brightest. It’s a major failing of the US immigration system. The rest of the developed world uses a point system based on youth, education, and skills needed here. The Koch brothers, however love cheap, exploitable labor and thus fund phony studies like that trying to show illegal immigrants are less criminal than black and Hispanic Americans. If states dared collect immigration status we would have data for an accurate study, but Democrats prefer ignorance.

        I recently learned that in 1700’s Pennsylvania immigration status was required along with an oath of allegiance due to 1/3 of the state being populated with German immigrants. So, the precedent goes way back.

        Making laws based on hoped compliance is a poor plan, but consistent with ignoring immigration and right to work. No enforceable fines for bicyclist traffic violations hasn’t worked either and dilutes compliance with laws generally. We see that with pot laws, Sanctuary cities, other interference with federal law enforcement, open use of drugs on the street, growing street camping in socialist western Sanctuary cities, and more DA’s refusing to prosecute a growing list of crimes. Don’t be surprised that it lead to other states defying the fed when it comes to abortion laws. Oops.

        1. “Making laws based on hoped compliance is a poor plan”…like gun laws or DUI laws? Federalist or states rights? Aren’t we lucky to have both especially when one severely undermines the liberties of individuals as the Confederate did under states rights, and the Marriage Act tried to do under Federal law? Thank the founding fathers for setting up this way. To ensure a powerful cadre of gentlemen farmers, one has to provide for division in the other classes along several lines. Why would they want to engender trust? Divide and conquer has always been the way of those who cannot lead. When both parties agree that there should be immigration reform and they outnumber Trump’s coalition, why isn’t this getting done? Divide and conquer.

  6. I think you need to add extreme partisan gerrymandering under, “Why has the possibility of asking a citizenship question become a political issue”. In North Carolina which has about as many Democrats as Republicans, Republican state Rep. Dave Lewis said, “I propose that we draw the maps to give a partisan advantage to 10 Republicans and three Democrats, because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats, …”. By drawing a Republican districts extending down a narrow portion of each road in a predominately Democratic region that expands to pick up not just Republicans on the street, but also non-citizens who are not eligible to vote, Lewis can get his 12 safe Republican districts.

  7. My post should have ended with, “…Lewis might be able to get his 12 safe Republican districts.”

  8. Will, you have mentioned several times that there are other ways to obtain the citizenship count. True. In fact there are other ways to obtain every other count on the census as well. That’s not the point. The point of the census is that it is the authoritative count of important demographic information, such as population, race, various economic parameters, etc. Since citizenship is undoubtedly an important issues in today’s public space we need an authoritative count of it. If indeed it makes some people reluctant to participate it seems the way to deal with that is through education and publicity, rather than simply ignoring the count. Unlike many other places where the books are cooked in self serving ways, one of the hallmarks of the American system, at least so far, is that we have reliable and nonpoliticized information on important social parameters, like employment, GDP, production, population, race and many others. We should not shrink from getting reliable data, however the chips may fall.

    1. But, Kiril, do you think that asking people an uncomfortable question is the best way to get a true answer? Administrative records are more reliable. The IRS and the Social Security Adminisetration have relevant records for 90% of the population and the Census Bureau believes that it could use those records to accurately estimate the other 10%. Please see the opinion of Justice Breyer at pages 13-14. Note that this pdf contains several different opinions and they restart page numbering for each. The pages to review on this issue should have the heading “Opinion of BREYER, J.”

  9. Thank you, Will, for your thoughtful and clear espousal of your thinking on this important question. It’s a great display of statecraft, deliberative democracy at its best.

    As concerned citizens, may we strengthen our ability to follow suit.

    As a Michigan-born direct descendant of four who served in the Continental Army, I’m deeply aware that their struggle was to uphold truths we hold to be self-evident: that all men are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights, among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

    That’s the American covenant, which remains our responsibility.

    As one whose father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were elected officials as well as a businessman, lawyer, and doctor, I learned that public service means serving all the people, not just those who elected you.

    That’s democracy’s promise in a pluralist society, which remains our unfinished project.

    As one who did post-doctoral work at Harvard Divinity for several years on values in public life, I learned about the challenge of extrapolating one’s values, beliefs, and commitments to the public square, a matter of mastering the art of forging “second first principles” in ways that find common ground.

    That’s a cornerstone of democracy, which, as Thomas Jefferson said, relies on an educated citizenry.

    I’m deeply aware of the fragility of deliberative democracy, which relies on persuasion through reason, not emotive appeals to judgment while reason is out to lunch.

    In public discourse, direct attacks drive out the capacity for reason, critical reflection, and empathy. Personal insults inhibit understanding and finding pathways to agreement. In a pluralist society such as ours, our diversity is our strength—until it’s not, due to an unwillingness to listen, have respect for each other, or accept where we disagree without getting defensive or hurling insults.

    Deliberative democracy cannot occur in a climate of mistrust and fear. Nor can it thrive when reason is tossed aside in favor of personal attacks and alarmism.

    It thrives when head and heart are aligned, in service to larger truths held in common, even is positions and policies vary.

    Our Constitution is clear on apportionment, which is not the same as the franchise.

    Your reasoning on both of these, the census and citizenship, is clear, as well.

    Thank you for that, and for your continued public reflections on how you are thinking through the discharge of your role as a public fiduciary. We are the better for it.

  10. Will —-I completely agree with your analysis above.
    (I haven’t read the comments by others.)
    Citizenship should not be on the Census!!

  11. Have you considered that it is the citizens who pay taxes and work in the United States who should ONLY be counted towards how Federal monies are apportioned? If you are not a citizen paying taxes why should you be counted?

    1. What if you are a non-citizen paying taxes? That is actually the most common scenario. There are not a lot of undocumented people on welfare — they want to work and send money back.

      See this recent piece in the Wall Street Journal showing that the cash flow going back to Central America from people working in the U.S. dwarfs U.S. Government aid to Central America.

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