If Trump Is Allowed to Rig the Census, Then All of US Democracy Is Rigged

A new battle is brewing over the 2020 US census. At least 12 states are moving to sue the Trump administration over plans to add a question about citizenship to the upcoming census. Voting rights activists fear the question will deter immigrants from participating in the census, leading to a vast undercount in states with large immigrant communities. This could impact everything from the redrawing of congressional maps to the allocation of federal funding. On Tuesday, White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the decision to add a citizenship question was “necessary for the Department of Justice to protect voters.” At least five former directors of the Census Bureau, who served under Republican and Democratic presidents, have written a letter opposing the citizenship question.

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AMY GOODMAN: A new battle is brewing over the 2020 US census. At least 12 states are moving to sue the Trump administration over plans to add one question: “Are you a US citizen?” Voting rights activists fear the question on the upcoming census will deter immigrants from participating in the census, leading to a vast undercount in states with large immigrant communities. This could impact everything from the redrawing of congressional maps to the allocation of federal funding. This is California’s Attorney General Becerra.

ATTORNEY GENERAL XAVIER BECERRA: By including a citizenship question, which will diminish response rates, the census will not be able to fulfill its constitutional duty to count everyone.

AMY GOODMAN: On Tuesday, White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders said the decision to add a citizenship question was, quote, “necessary for the Department of Justice to protect voters.”

PRESS SECRETARY SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: The purpose is to determine individuals that are here. It also helps to comply with the Voting Rights Act.

AMY GOODMAN: At least five former directors of the Census Bureau, who served under Republican and Democratic presidents, have written a letter opposing the citizenship question.

For more, we’re joined now by Ari Berman, a senior writer at Mother Jones, author of Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America. His new piece, just out today, headlined “Hidden Figures: The 2020 Census Will Shape the Future of Our Democracy.”

Well, this is a stunning development, Ari. That simple question, “Are you an American citizen, a US citizen?” talk about the significance of this.

ARI BERMAN: It’s one question, but it’s a huge question on a huge issue, because the census affects everything in American life, Amy. It affects how $675 billion in federal funding is allocated to states and localities. It affects how many congressional seats and electoral votes states get. It affects how local and federal districts are drawn. It affects the data that every institution in America, from corporations to universities to the military, uses to understand their populations. And so, if the census is rigged, if the census is manipulated, then all of American democracy is rigged and manipulated as a result.

And there has always been a tremendous undercount of people of color by the census. In the 2010 census, 1.5 million people of color were undercounted, were not counted by the Census Bureau. That undercount could be dramatically larger now under Trump, because immigrants are going to be afraid to respond to the census now. And so, what Donald Trump is doing is he’s turning the census, which is a constitutionally mandated act every 10 years, he’s turning the census into a tool of voter suppression and to a tool of nativist resentment. And that’s so shocking for our democracy.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to the White House spokesperson, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who attempted to defend the census citizenship question. Let’s go back to her comments.

PRESS SECRETARY SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: Once again, I would argue that this has been practice of the United States government. The purpose is to determine individuals that are here. It also helps to comply with the Voting Rights Act. Without that information, it’s hard to make those determinations. And that information needs to be gathered, and it has been part of the United States census every time we’ve had a census since 1965, with the one exception of the 2010 census.

AMY GOODMAN: What about what Sarah Sanders said?

ARI BERMAN: Well, there’s two unbelievable lies that she told. The first lie that she told is that the citizenship question has been asked every census since 1965. In fact, it hasn’t been asked since 1950, when America was a segregated Jim Crow society. So it hasn’t been asked for nearly 70 years. Secondly, she said it was removed in 2010, which is completely untrue.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you’re talking about, it was — it wasn’t asked during Reagan years, during Bush years.

ARI BERMAN: No, it hasn’t been asked since 1950. The question was removed in 1950.

AMY GOODMAN: In fact, they competed, Reagan and Bush — right? — to see who was more pro-immigrant.

ARI BERMAN: Exactly. And it’s never been used, obviously, when we’ve had a president who’s as outspoken on immigration as — anti-immigration as Donald Trump.

The second thing is, this is totally unnecessary to enforce the Voting Rights Act, that a question about citizenship has not been asked since the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965. And it’s really hilarious to hear the Trump administration say that they’re suddenly concerned about enforcing the Voting Rights Act. This is an administration that is clearly hostile to voting rights, that hasn’t filed a single suit to enforce the Voting Rights Act, that has actually backed away from opposing laws, like Texas’s voter ID law, that courts have found violate the Voting Rights Act. So you have an administration that is clearly hostile to the Voting Rights Act turning around and saying we need this data to enforce the Voting Rights Act. It’s an obvious ruse to try to get this data for other purposes.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to California Secretary of State Alex Padilla.

SECRETARY OF STATE ALEX PADILLA: The Trump administration’s decision last night rolls back the clock on civil rights and voting rights in America. And sadly, it’s just their latest effort to sabotage the already underfunded and understaffed and leaderless Census. Questioning the citizenship status of every person in America is, unfortunately, just a continuation of the president’s blatant agenda to fan the flames of anti-immigrant hostility in our nation.

AMY GOODMAN: Ari Berman, take it from there.

ARI BERMAN: Well, what you heard Alex Padilla, the California secretary of state, say is just how big of a deal this question could be for states that have large immigrant populations. So, for example, California has a larger number of foreign-born residents and undocumented immigrants than any other state in the country. California could lose $1,900 per person in federal funding, over $20 billion in federal funding, if immigrants don’t respond to the census.

Not only that, they could lose multiple congressional seats and electoral votes. There’s only 435 electoral votes in the country, Amy. This is a fixed number. So if California loses two congressional votes, and, let’s say, a state that’s more white and more conservative gains electoral votes, that’s going to affect the entire presidential election.

Also, the census is going to affect redistricting post-2020, which is going to be a huge fight. It’s going to affect basically everything in America. And so, this is not just about immigrants, it’s not just about noncitizens. It’s about the fact that the Trump administration is trying to undercut one of the central pillars of democracy.

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain more why the census is so related to voting and redistricting.

ARI BERMAN: Well, the census basically forms the basis for redistricting and for how voting districts are drawn. Census data is used to draw districts. So, every 10 years we take the census. After that happens, we then reapportion states in terms of how much electoral votes and congressional seats they get, and we also use that data to draw districts around the country. So, in 2021, after the 2020 census occurs, state legislatures across the country will come into session, and they will draw new districts. And the census will form the basis for those districts. So, if the census is skewed, if the census, for example, overcounts white population and undercounts people of color, that means that when it comes to drawing new districts, people of color and immigrants are going to be underrepresented.

AMY GOODMAN: Ari, what do you say to those who say, “Well, undocumented people shouldn’t be represented in Congress. Undocumented people shouldn’t be getting federal funding.”

ARI BERMAN: Well, it’s always been the case that districts have been drawn based on total population, not citizenship. This actually just went to the Supreme Court a few years ago. And the Supreme Court, two years ago, ruled unanimously, 8 to zero, that districts should be drawn based on total population and not citizenship, because, they said, everyone who’s here deserves citizenship, deserves — “citizenship” meaning the ability to be represented, whether or not they are or are not a citizen. So, when there’s a fire, the fire department goes to your house, whether or not you are documented or undocumented. When you go to the hospital, they treat you, whether you are documented or undocumented. The census is the same way. The census says, very clearly in the Constitution, it’s an enumeration of the actual population, not of citizens. And if you go down this road to excluding people from representation, to excluding people from counting, you’re going to exclude millions of people from the democratic process who should be counted.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the census department, the kind of funding it has, who’s heading it. Is it ready? And also, computerized census for the first time, online counting.

ARI BERMAN: Well, the citizenship question is such a big deal, because the census is already facing a perfect storm of problems. Its budget has been cut for years by the Republican Congress and by the Trump administration. It’s using internet technology for the first time, so it’s asking basically everyone to respond online as opposed to on a paper form. So, suddenly now, everyone is going to get a postcard telling them to respond online, in an era of internet hacks, and there’s going to be a question about US citizenship on the form. So, that’s going to freak a lot of people out. A lot of citizens, who might not care about the citizenship question, aren’t going to want to respond online, because of fear of Russian hacks and other things like that in this day and age.

There’s no leadership at the Census Bureau. Its full-time director resigned the same day James Comey was fired. And so, there has been no permanent replacement. Underneath the director of the Census Bureau, there are a bunch of Republican appointees who have very conservative backgrounds. A senior adviser to the Census Bureau, for example, is the former director of research for Kellyanne Conway’s polling firm, one of Trump’s leading advisers.

So, the census is already in a tremendous amount of trouble. Even before the citizenship question, there was a really big question about whether the census was going to have an accurate count. Now I think many, many people are concerned there’s going to be a failed, inaccurate, unfair census in 2020.

AMY GOODMAN: So, this issue of cybersecurity, to say the least, it’s an obsession, of what’s going on in this country right now when it comes to elections. You have an example in your piece in Mother Jones about Australia and what happened there.

ARI BERMAN: When Australia did an online census, it was hacked. And it went down for 40 hours as a result. Can you imagine, Amy, in April of 2020, in the middle of Donald Trump’s re-election campaign, if the census goes up, it’s hacked, and then it goes down for a period of time? Nobody will want to respond to it after that. So, people are already reluctant to respond to the census because of cybersecurity fears, because of the climate of anti-immigration sentiment in the country, because people don’t trust the Trump administration with their data. Then you add this question on citizenship on top of it, and you’re facing an unprecedented level of problems for the Census Bureau and for our 2020 census right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Who is Thomas Brunell? Very quickly.

ARI BERMAN: Thomas Brunell was an expert at Republican gerrymandering who the Trump administration wanted to run the 2020 census. He withdrew, but it’s clear that the Trump administration is now filled with people who want to manipulate, who want to corrupt the 2020 census for partisan purposes. They want to take a constitutionally mandated act and turn it into a weapon of voter suppression and into a weapon of nativist sentiment.

AMY GOODMAN: What if you don’t answer the question, “Are you a US citizen?”

ARI BERMAN: That’s really interesting. I mean, I think we’re heading towards a situation where people are going to not answer that question but respond to the census form. Then the question is: Will that lead to an accurate census? Will they count those forms? What will happen? It’s a really tough quandary, because if you’re not counted by the census, then you don’t get federal funding, you don’t count towards representation. So, there’s a lot of reasons why you should respond to the census. But at the same time —

AMY GOODMAN: But if you just don’t answer that question?

ARI BERMAN: I think your census form will still count, but this is going to be one of the many things that’s now litigated in court.

AMY GOODMAN: And what if everyone answered no to “Are you a US citizen?”

ARI BERMAN: Well, then, it would basically just mean that there’s a lot more noncitizens than we thought there were in the country.

AMY GOODMAN: But in terms of what it means for voting, everything would be the same. Or would it be?

ARI BERMAN: Well, it wouldn’t be, because one of the things they want to do is they want to draw districts, based on the number of citizens in a district. So, if suddenly everyone says, “I’m not a citizen,” then they’re going to say, “Well, none of you guys count for representation.” So, already places like New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, places with large immigrant populations, are going to be harmed if they decide to draw districts based on citizenship. If suddenly people say, “We don’t want to be counted as citizens,” that will further reduce representation for these areas.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, of course, we’ll continue to follow this issue. Is it a done deal?

ARI BERMAN: It’s a done deal in terms of the question, but there’s going to be a tremendous amount of litigation around it.

AMY GOODMAN: So that could stop the question from being on the census?

ARI BERMAN: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Ari Berman, senior writer at Mother Jones, reporting fellow at The Nation Institute, author of Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America. His new piece, just out, “Hidden Figures: The 2020 Census Will Shape the Future of Our Democracy.” We’ll link to Mother Jones and the piece at democracynow.org.

When we come back, Part 2 of our exclusive with Chelsea Manning. Stay with us.