What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

Why census experts fear a citizenship question would jeopardize results

Correction: An earlier version of this video listed income as a datapoint the Census gathers. The Census no longer asks about income in its full survey.

Counting the roughly 327 million people currently living in the U.S. is a massive effort. And this year, before the next census moves forward, the Supreme Court must decide whether the Trump administration should be allowed to add a citizenship question to it, over the concerns of census experts. Judy Woodruff talks to the National Law Journal’s Marcia Coyle and NPR’s Hansi Lo Wang for analysis.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It is a massive effort every 10 years that's critical to our country, counting the roughly 327 million people currently living in the United States.

    Before the next census moves forward, the U.S. Supreme Court must decide whether the Trump administration should be allowed to add this question: Is this person a citizen of the United States?

    The controversy over that question, one of the biggest of the term, went before the justices today.

    While the Trump administration argued for their right to add a citizenship question to the census, inside the court…

  • Protester:

    What do we want?

  • Protesters:

    A complete count.

  • Protester:

    When do we want it?

  • Protesters:

    Now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    … protesters outside railed against the addition. The ACLU's Dale Ho challenged the government's intention behind including a question on citizenship.

  • Dale Ho:

    If you add it, we're going to get fewer people responding to the census and a less accurate census. And let's not forget what the administration's purpose is. They say they want to publish block-by-block counts of citizens and non-citizens.

    Well, you don't have to be a conspiracy theorist to be concerned that, if that data is out there, it could pose a risk to you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross says he added the question to help enforce voting rights, but House Democrats challenged his intent at a hearing last month.

  • Wilbur Ross:

    I have never intentionally misled Congress or even intentionally said anything incorrect under oath.

  • Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo.:

    Mr. Secretary, you lied to Congress. You misled the American people. And you are complicit in the Trump administration's intent to suppress the growing political power of the non-white population.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But why is the census important enough to involve all three branches of government? The U.S. census is an attempt by the government to count every person living in the United States.

    Every 10 years, the Census Bureau gathers information, like gender, age and race.

  • Actor:

    We did it.

  • Actor:

    Hey.

  • Actor:

    What did you do?

  • Actor:

    We helped mommy fill out her census form. And we mailed it back.

  • Actor:

    But why?

  • Actor:

    Because everybody counts in the census form.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But why does the government collect this data? First, the Constitution says to.

  • George H.W. Bush:

    One of the ways the Constitution preserves our rights is to require the government to conduct a census every 10 years.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The founding fathers decided the number of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives is determined by the number of people in each state. The official count is used to draw voting districts at the national, state and local level.

    But there's another important reason the U.S. conducts a census: money.

  • Man:

    Two-million-four, two-million-five.

  • Woman:

    The U.S. census isn't just a population count. It helps allocate federal, state and local funds to your community.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The federal government decides how much funding or grants to give states, counties and cities by looking at the detailed census data. That means money for updating schools, building new hospitals, repairing broken roads, and maintaining public utilities like water, sewage and electricity.

  • Man:

    You can answer census 2000 and get what you need. Or you can leave it blank and get this: nothing.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Private companies also make major decisions based on what the census says, like where to build grocery stores or new housing developments.

    But like any government agency, the Census Bureau needs funding to do its job. And it's not cheap. The last census, in 2010, cost taxpayers $13 billion, with more than 500 field offices and 635,000 staffers nationwide.

    Census watchers look now to the Supreme Court for a quick resolution, less than a year out from the next census.

    Today's arguments are just the latest step in this long-running controversy.

    And here to cover this, from both angles, are our regular Supreme Court analyst, Marcia Coyle of "The National Law Journal," and Hansi Lo Wang. He's on the census beat for NPR.

    And welcome to both of you.

    You were both in the courtroom today.

    Hansi, I'm going to start with you. This really is the end of a long controversy, is it not?

  • Hansi Lo Wang:

    Yes, this is a legal battle that officially started more than a year ago, after Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the Census Bureau, announced that he approved adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And remind us, Hansi, what is it that experts at the Census Bureau themselves say the meaning of adding this question would be to the census? What would the effect of it — what would the effect be, in their view?

  • Hansi Lo Wang:

    Census Bureau research suggests it's highly likely that households with non-citizens — and that could include some citizens — would be very discouraged, scared of participating in the census if it were to include a citizenship question.

    This is a very sensitive question, especially in this current political climate of anti-immigrant rhetoric and also growing immigration enforcement.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Marcia, so what was the legal argument that brought it — brought this case today before the Supreme Court?

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Well, Judy, three federal courts have decided that Secretary Ross' decision violated federal law, and specifically the Administrative Procedure Act, which really guides federal agencies in rule-making, regulation-making.

    They found that — one judge in particular said the secretary had committed a veritable smorgasbord of federal law violations. So that case was appealed by the Trump administration to the Supreme Court. And we have the arguments today.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And so tell us, in sum, what is it that the Commerce Department under Secretary Ross is saying, we need to do this? What is the argument they make?

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Well, Secretary Ross has given as the primary reason that the citizenship question is necessary for the Justice Department to enforce the Voting Rights Act.

    And during the questioning today, the questions sort of revealed almost very quickly the ideological divide on the court itself. On the liberal side of the bench, Justices Kagan and Sotomayor really pressed Trump administration lawyer Noel Francisco about the secretary's reasons for having the citizenship question.

    Justice Kagan pointed out that the secretary has the authority not to agree with the Census Bureau experts, but, under federal law, he has to give reasons. And she said, as she looked at the record and the evidence, she found no reasons. And Justice Sotomayor said it appeared to be he had a solution in search of a problem.

    And then on the other side of the bench, the more conservative side, you had Chief Justice Roberts saying to New York Solicitor General Barbara Underwood…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Who is a critic, one of the many critics.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Right. They had sued the government.

    He said, well, you know, the census asks a lot of questions. It asks your age, your sex, your marital status. Why not citizenship? And General Underwood responded, but for those questions, there is no evidence that they result in an undercount, and there is ample evidence that the citizenship question will result in an undercount.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Go ahead.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    I was also going to add, Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh also pressed her. They noted that the United Nations recommends that countries include a citizenship question and that there are many English-speaking countries that have citizenship questions.

    And she said, while that information might be useful to some countries, those countries may not have our Constitution, which has as the Enumeration Clause the principle function of counting everyone.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Hansi Lo Wang, as somebody who has followed this issue, who follows the census as a story for as long as you have, what did you hear in the courtroom? Was there a new argument made? Was there some new ray of light shone on this issue today?

  • Hansi Lo Wang:

    There really are no new arguments that I heard today.

    These are — there are a lot of issues that are brought up in this case, and a lot of them are very technical. This is — the heart of it is a lot about survey methodology and statistics. And some of the justices even remarked that, wow, we're getting very technical during this oral argument.

    And so this issue is going to be — it appears that this issue, the justices, have already — a lot of them have already made up their minds, based on the way they asked questions and the comments they made during this ruling — during this — oral arguments, rather.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Marcia, you, the two of you, between you, you're making it sound as if it's kind of expected the way the justices are going to come down on this.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Well, it's always hard to say, Judy. I think they're very good at playing devil's advocate. And you don't know when they go back in their private conference room how they are going to hash things out.

    But it did look as though they were divided, and that division generally favored — would generally favor the Trump administration here. But we will have to wait and see. They are under something — some time pressure. The census has to be printed, I think, in July.

    And so the justices do need to reach a decision by the end of June in order to resolve this.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Hansi, quickly, that's what I wanted to ask you. What does the Census Bureau do, whichever way this goes?

  • Hansi Lo Wang:

    Well, it has two different versions of the 2020 census ready to the printed. And so it's waiting for the Supreme Court to make a decision in order to tell a printer which one to get — to start printing.

    And there's 1.5 billion pieces of mail, including paper form, letters, postcards, that need to be printed this summer in order to prepare properly for the 2020 census start next year.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A lot hanging over the Supreme Court on this one.

    Hansi Lo Wang of NPR, Marcia Coyle, thank you both.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Pleasure, Judy.

Listen to this Segment

The Latest