A trial over the Trump administration’s use of a citizenship question on the next US census for the first time in 70 years gets under way on Monday in Manhattan, with dozens of states and cities arguing the move is a bald power grab.
The trial, starting the day before a momentous midterm election, could help rewrite the nation’s political map for a decade. Census results are used to apportion seats in Congress and divvy up the Electoral College votes that pick the president. The data are also used to distribute hundreds of millions of dollars a year in federal aid to states and localities.
The administration has said it will show that it decided to add the question — “Is this person a citizen of the United States?” — to the 2020 census to improve enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. It says any changes to the once-a-decade survey are well within the constitutional authority of the Census Bureau, part of the Commerce Department. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross testified before Congress in March that he was acting in response to a justice department request.
Plaintiffs, led by New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood, intend to prove that the addition of the question goes back to the outset of Donald Trump’s presidency, when Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach and former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon, among others, weighed in with an anti-immigrant agenda.
The real goal, the plaintiffs say, is to dilute the political power of immigrants and noncitizens by discouraging them from participating in the census. Given the president’s language and actions on immigrants, the idea is they may fear the data could be used by federal immigration agents to target them or someone in their household, even if they are in the US legally.