The Ongoing War Over Who Counts

The one thing we know for sure about the upcoming decennial census is that there will not be a question about the respondent’s citizenship status in 2020. We also know that the Census Bureau had predicted that including the question would have suppressed responses from Latinx residents. Advocates for the question have denied that that was the point of the question, but have argued that information gained would have been worth that cost. Opponents have argued that the question was indeed intended to suppress Latinx responses, thus weakening the voting power of residents of more heavily Latinx districts and favoring whiter, more conservative districts.

But there is strong evidence from documents uncovered last May and June of another motivation for the citizenship question: to change the nature of the populations used to draw Congressional district lines. Currently, Congressional districts are drawn so that district populations are nearly equal, where the population counted is “the whole number of persons in each State” (from the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which superseded original language that counted slaves as 3/5 of a person). In the 2016 case from Texas, Evenwel v. Abbott, plaintiffs argued that using total population violated the Equal Protection Clause by reducing the voting power of voters in districts with low immigrant populations, compared to voters in districts with higher immigrant populations. The Supreme Court held that states may use total population to draw districts, but did not rule out other options.

The argument made in documents belonging to recently deceased Republican “gerrymandering guru” Thomas Hofeller for the citizenship question is that it would lay the groundwork for a national change to using citizens of voting age as the population for drawing districts, instead of counting everyone. Hofeller argued that such a change would benefit “Republicans and non-Hispanic whites.” He also proposed as a cover story that the question would provide data to aid enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, the excuse provided by the government that was rejected by the Supreme Court in June.

Now comes Alabama and Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL), suing the Commerce Department and the Census Bureau last year to block counting of undocumented immigrants for apportionment of Congressional representatives to the states, as well as for allocating federal funds. Alabama is projected to lose a seat when representatives are apportioned after the 2020 census. The plaintiffs argue that the wording “persons in each State” was not intended to refer to undocumented immigrants, that the phrase was “understood at both the Founding and in the Reconstruction era to be restricted to aliens who have been lawfully admitted to the body politic,” and thus a “proper” interpretation of the laws governing the census and apportionment would mean counting only “the total of legally present resident population of the United States.” A number of experts have offered contrary understandings of history and judicial precedent.

The district judge hearing the case has expressed concerns that the federal government may not wholeheartedly defend the suit, so has allowed Hispanic and civil rights groups to join the defense, along with 16 other states that stand to lose representatives under the Alabama plan, nine cities and counties, and the U.S. Conference of Mayors. He also denied the government’s motion to dismiss the suit, however. A hearing is scheduled for September 6.

More details here.

Published by

Matthew Saltzman, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences, Clemson University. President, the COIN-OR Foundation, Inc. Director for Redistricting, League of Women Voters of South Carolina

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