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Citizenship question may result in less accurate 2020 census, says former bureau director

The U.S. Department of Commerce announced Monday it plans to add back a question on citizenship status to the 2020 census -- a change requested by the Justice Department. Now the state of California is suing the Trump administration, calling the move unconstitutional. The former director of the U.S. Census Bureau Kenneth Pruitt discusses the impact of the rule change with Judy Woodruff.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The U.S. Department of Commerce announced Monday that it plans to add back a question on citizenship status to the 2020 census.

    Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross explained the move on FOX Business Channel this morning.

  • Wilbur Ross:

    We have heard from people on all sides of the equation. We have done elaborate analyses within the Census Department, and we have concluded that the benefits to the Voting Rights Act enforcement of asking the question outweighs these other issues.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The state of California is suing the administration, calling the move unconstitutional.

    California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said today that it would lead to an inaccurate head count.

  • Xavier Becerra:

    Certainly, we know for many people in this country, as a result of the broken immigration system, there are many individuals who might fear participating in the census if a question about citizenship is asked.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    There was mixed reaction from members of Congress. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called it detrimental, while Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas said the census update is commonsense.

    The Department of Justice originally requested the change, and in a statement to the "NewsHour," the agency said that it — quote — "looks forward to defending the reinstatement of the citizenship question, which will allow the department to protect the right to vote and ensure free and fair elections for all Americans."

    I spoke with Kenneth Prewitt, former head the U.S. Census Bureau and now a professor at Columbia University, about what these changes mean.

  • Kenneth Prewitt:

    I believe it will result in a less accurate and a less inclusive census than we would have had without this question being put on the census at the last minute.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Why?

  • Kenneth Prewitt:

    I think it's going to frighten people, certain segments of the population.

    We're already dealing with a lack of trust in the government, and we're certainly dealing with an immigration crisis about how we're rounding people up and so forth. And I think the citizenship question will come across as a statement that some people belong here and others don't, but that's not what the Constitution says.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, among other things, the administration is pointing out that they have already been asking this question on some census surveys over a number of years, so that it's not that different from what they have done.

  • Kenneth Prewitt:

    No, it's asked on a number of places.

    And the Census Bureau does a very good job of having very accurate reports on the citizenship of the population. It's used to advance the Voting Rights Act. It works very well. So this is extra, but it's extra in a highly visible way. Nothing is as visible as the decennial census.

    And I just think it will attract a lot of attention, and not all of that will be welcome attention.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Do you know, can you tell us with information gathered by the census can be used? Is it shared with the Department of Justice, for example?

  • Kenneth Prewitt:

    Only in the aggregate. Of course, it's shared with the entire public in the aggregate, but not ever an individual record.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, in terms of an individual immigrant, you were saying being fearful of talking to a census-taker, their information is not something that would be passed on and acted on by the government?

  • Kenneth Prewitt:

    No, but it's not easy to convince everybody in the American public that that is true.

    If you lived in a home that were, say, half immigrants, half citizens, half non-citizens, and you're even a citizen and you get to that part of the form where you have to list the third or fourth person, and they're not a citizen, I just think people will be very uncomfortable doing that.

    We know about the raids and so forth. I'm not saying that's going to happen. I'm only saying how the public will respond to this.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What are the consequences of not getting an accurate count?

  • Kenneth Prewitt:

    You create an unfairness, because most of the big benefits from a census are proportionate to population size. That includes, of course, redistricting. It includes reapportionment. It also includes federal moneys.

    Six trillion dollars will be spent on formulas based upon the 2020 census over the next 10 years. And a state or a group that is less counted than another one is going to get less of its share of money, less of its share of political voice.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, in fact, some people are already pointing out that among those states or districts that voted heavily for President Trump in the 2016 election, some of them may stand to lose or gain federal funds as a result of the census? How do you see that?

  • Kenneth Prewitt:

    Veterans, schoolteachers, transportation officials, these are all programs that depend upon the census data. And a bad count means that they are going to be — suffer from the absence of having their full numbers represented in the census.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The question has been raised in terms of who's going to be affected by this census count, whether it is correct or not.

    And we have a map here showing some of the — these are the fastest growing immigrant populations in the country, and most of these states were states where President Trump won them in 2016. How do you see the impact in these states?

  • Kenneth Prewitt:

    Well, in those states, they will still be under-counted, and they will not have political voice in that respect.

    Let me just say it this way. We have never had a polarized census, one in which the public can experience as, oh, there's a Democratic side and a Republican side. I think that's a very dangerous place for the country to be. I think this census has always been — the Census Bureau is not political.

    It's always been — the numbers, of course, are political, but not the process of counting the American people. And I think that what we're stepping into is a condition where we're going to polarize the census. And that's not healthy. And I can imagine a lot of people not being as cooperative as they might have otherwise been.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And do you think that necessarily benefits one political party or another?

  • Kenneth Prewitt:

    I think it's unpredictable.

    It will, but I don't want to say it's going to favor the Democrats or the Republicans. I don't even know that, and I don't think anyone knows that. I don't think it was intentionally done that way, but I think it's going to have consequences, which is simply going to lead to inaccuracy and unfairness, irrespective of who's suffering or who's rewarded in this.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Kenneth Prewitt, the former director of the United States census, thank you very much.

  • Kenneth Prewitt:

    It was my pleasure. Thank you, Judy.

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