Updated Nov 5, 2018

Trump goes to trial over 2020 census citizenship question

"Is this person a citizen of the United States?" This is the controversial question the Trump administration will defend adding to the 2020 census questionnaire in a closely watched federal trial starting Monday in New York City.

Why it matters: This could determine the electoral map for future state legislative races and federal elections. Census data is used to apportion congressional seats and electoral college votes that determine the winner of presidential elections, as well as the distribution of federal funds among states.

Key arguments: The question has not been asked on the nation's standard census form since 1950. Amid brewing anti-immigration sentiments, critics said adding the question could produce an undercount because undocumented immigrants would refuse to participate in the decennial survey out of fear of being deported. As a result, the political power of heavily Democratic states with large immigrant communities would be diluted.

  • The administration argues that the question is not discriminatory, and that it would provide citizenship data for the Justice Department to better enforce Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which aims to prevent voting rights violations.
  • But John Gore, the acting head of the DOJ's civil rights division, said in his deposition released late Sunday that the question is "not necessary" for enforcing the VRA.

The backdrop: For months, plaintiffs in the suit — 18 states, several cities and immigrant groups — and DOJ attorneys have been fighting over the disclosure of internal government documents and emails that show how the administration reached its decision.

  • Most notably, disclosed records contradicted Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross who told lawmakers in sworn testimony to Congress earlier this year that the DOJ “initiated the request for inclusion of the citizenship question” in December 2017. In fact, internal documents show that administration officials, including former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, had begun pushing for the question just months after taking office.
  • In March, when Ross announced he will add the question, he had downplayed concerns that it could lower the response rate. But in a January memo, the Census Bureau's chief scientist John Abowd warned it could produce "substantially less accurate citizenship status data."

The big picture: The case, one of six challenging the legality of Ross' decision, could be appealed all the way up to the Supreme Court. The high court has already intervened in the suit: The justices blocked a lower court’s ruling last month for Ross to sit for a deposition and answer questions under oath, and on Friday, they rejected the administration's request to delay the trail.

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