It’s too bad we had to suffer through all the commotion, controversy, indecision and tweets before President Donald Trump finally backed off his campaign to add a citizenship question to next year’s census.
Of course, it’s good that he did back down. For starters, it was all too clear that he wanted a citizenship question on the 2020 census for political reasons, not the good of the nation. He wanted to frighten Hispanics and other immigrants from participating so that they would be undercounted, making it easier to expand the gerrymandering that benefits white Republican candidates.
If there had been any doubt, the political motivations were starkly revealed in reports about the role of Thomas Hofeller, the Republican strategist who devised North Carolina’s gerrymandered voting districts, in the Trump administration’s request for the census change.
But the administration lied when defending the request before Congress and the Supreme Court. It offered what Chief Justice John Roberts politely called a “contrived” reason: the cynical claim that a citizenship question would help enforce the Voting Rights Act and protect minorities. The court was right to call the administration on it, but wrong to give the administration another chance to come up with a better story.
In any event, the administration was in such disarray that it couldn’t concoct a reasonable excuse quickly enough. It even tried to fire its lawyers and start over with new ones.
If Trump had continued to insist on adding a citizenship question despite the Supreme Court’s ruling, that would have triggered a constitutional crisis, something this badly divided nation doesn’t need.
Another reason it’s good that Trump finally gave in is purely practical: The people who actually work with the census had been arguing that it would be nearly impossible, not to mention expensive, to produce census forms on time if they had to add the question. The conflicting orders from the Commerce Department and the president in the wake of the Supreme Court decision were disruptive, coming when it was time to start printing the forms.
We can breathe a collective sigh of relief now that Trump finally realized he couldn’t have his way on this. The administration will now do what census staff said from the beginning would be more effective and less disruptive: Gather citizenship numbers from existing federal administrative records.
The danger, though, is that at least some of the damage Trump hoped for in trying to add a citizenship question to the census has already been done. One aim was to intimidate minority and immigrant voters. The highly public storm that has raged over the citizenship question may leave many people wary of the census, so that even those who are citizens might not participate, especially if they have family or friends who aren’t citizens.
Getting an accurate count of the people who live here and a sense of their age and sex is vitally important, so much so that the Founders put a requirement for a complete count every 10 years in the Constitution.
That information is vital for establishing voting districts, an important element in our democracy. But beyond that, it’s essential for determining how federal funds are doled out to states and local communities for a wide range of programs, and it’s needed for policy and planning.
The hope is that all this attention will highlight the importance of the census and encourage people who want to do the right thing for the country to fill out that form.