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2020 Citizenship Question Likely to Have Lasting, Deep Effects

MONDAY, MAY 20, 2019

The U.S. Supreme Court is currently considering Department of Commerce v. New York, a case challenging the Trump administration’s proposed inclusion of a citizenship question on the 2020 decennial Census questionnaire — a process that could be affected by new revelations about the White House’s alleged rationale for pushing the question. New York State and co-plaintiffs argue that the question would cause fewer households with undocumented immigrants to respond to the Census.  The Trump administration, meanwhile, has argued that the question needs to be asked so it can better protect the voting rights of minority citizens.

Use new data and interactive maps built by Social Explorer to find out how this change might affect your area in terms of Congressional districts, as well as districts for the upper and lower houses in the state legislature. The online tool uses population data from the 2010 Census along with citizenship data from the 2013-2017 American Community Survey to demonstrate the way districts would need to be redrawn for Congress and State Legislatures. Currently, all congressional districts are drawn based upon total population and are equal in size, but efforts are underway to redefine who counts when it comes to representation. For example, legislators in Texas, Arizona, Missouri and Nebraska would like to use either the number of citizens or the number of eligible voters (called Citizens of Voting Age) instead of total population when drawing legislative districts.

Recently discovered documents written by Republican strategist Thomas Hofeller, the architect of partisan political maps, suggest political considerations preceded the voting rights argument. The documents, released by his estranged daughter after his death last summer and then given to Common Cause, show Hofeller urged the Trump administration to include the question, concluding that using citizenship rather than total population counts for redistricting “would be advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic whites.”

The plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case argue that the trove of computer hard drives obtained by Common Cause prove that the citizenship question was designed specifically to provide a political edge for Republican candidates, and that two top Trump officials — A. Mark Neuman, a top adviser to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, and John Gore, a senior Justice Department official — lied in sworn testimony.

The citizenship question is considered crucial because it would replace the current method of allocating Electoral College votes and congressional districts. Currently, the total population is used as the basis for deciding the number of congressional seats and Electoral College votes that each state receives. A change to the citizens of voting-age population (CVAP) method would likely reduce the number of people residing in immigrant-heavy areas and enlarge those districts, benefitting less-diverse rural and suburban regions of the nation that have tended to favor Republican candidates.

Although the Census Bureau hasn’t taken a position on the merits of the new question, an August 2018 report concluded that the presence of a citizenship question “would lead to lower self-response rates in households potentially containing noncitizens, resulting in higher fieldwork costs and a lower-quality population count.”

Opponents of the question’s inclusion have cited it as prima facie evidence of racism by the Trump administration, claiming it’s a plot to disenfranchise foreign-born residents – who make up 13.4 percent of the nation’s population. And while the political debate swirls around whether the question has its roots in racist attitudes, the issue is likely to also have lasting influence over three other “R”s – Reapportionment, Redistricting, and Redistribution.


The most talked about consequence of a citizenship question would play out during the reapportionment process. The process, conducted after each decennial Census, assigns the 435 seats in the House of Representatives to the 50 states, based upon population equality. The number of seats assigned to each state generally marks the first major topline numbers released from a decennial Census and is usually announced before the end of the year in which the count is taken.

During the past three decades, fast-growing states with large numbers of undocumented immigrants such as California, Texas, and Florida have gained seats in the House. Meanwhile, states with high proportions of native-born residents, such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, have lost seats.  Estimates that the response rate among the Hispanic population – among the nation’s fastest-growing racial and ethnic groups – would drop roughly 15 percent with the addition of the new citizenship question would, and change the outcome of the 2020 reapportionment process.  Congressional seats in more Democratic Party-leaning New York and California would shift to less ethnically diverse states such as Montana and Colorado.

Such changes with, reapportionment could also play a role in the 2024 presidential election, since the number of House and Senate seats determines the number of Electoral College votes. President Trump, for example, received 306 electoral votes to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 232 in the 2016 election, largely on the strength of narrow victories in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania that gave him 46 electoral votes.  A slight shift in the number of electoral votes assigned to any one of those three larger, whiter states that might gain seats because of a lower noncitizen Census response, could magnify their importance and political influence for the coming decade.


Once reapportionment is settled, states begin the arduous, arcane, and often highly partisan process of redistricting, or drawing legislative boundaries, using Census data known as Summary File 1. Redistricting is generally governed by two key factors: Population, as determined by the Census, and equal representation for voters of all races, required under the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Both factors stand to be profoundly affected by the potential inclusion of a citizenship question in the decennial Census.

A September 2018 study by the University of California-Los Angeles placed the nonresponse rate as high as 9.7 percent nationally if the citizenship question is included, and roughly 15 percent among the Hispanic population. Although the Census Bureau is legally prohibited from sharing private data with other agencies or the public, the Trump administration has a track record of targeting immigrants through both commentary and policy–frequently denouncing immigrants, limiting the immigration of Muslims to the US, ordering new restrictions on asylum seekers at the Mexican border, and more.

The potential consequences for representation go beyond a simple undercount that dilutes minority representation. The 2016 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Evenwel v. Abbott, held that states would continue to use total population (rather than just citizens) in drawing voting districts, but the nation’s high court left the door open for future challenges on the issue.

A study by CUNY-Queens College sociology professor and Social Explorer co-founder Andrew Beveridge from 2016 found that more than half of all voting districts would be “substantially changed” if states drew districts based on citizen voting-age populations (CVAPs) instead of total populations. The study found it likely that five congressional seats would shift from Democratic to Republican control if the CVAP methodology were used.

The latest interactive tool developed by Social Explorer allows users to consider the ramifications of redistricting based on CVAPs.


Visualize percentage of non-citizens and switch from congressional districts to state districts – State Legislative Districts Upper (SLDU) or State Legislative Districts Lower (SLDL), by selecting them in the geography level menu. 

Noncitizens make up 10 percent or more of the population in 107 congressional districts. Nine of the 10 districts with the most noncitizens are represented in Congress by Democrats, according to the 2017 American Community Survey. Among those 10 districts, California has four, including the 34th Congressional District in Los Angeles County, where 29 percent of residents are noncitizens.


Although the citizenship question is being cast as a representation decision, its inclusion in the decennial questionnaire also has major ramifications for the redistribution of tax dollars in the $4 trillion federal budget. According to a December 2018 study by George Washington University, the Census Bureau derives 52 specialized datasets from the decennial headcount. The datasets, which range in complexity from the sprawling annual American Community Survey to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s classification of remote areas, are used to allocate $880 billion in annual spending to neighborhoods, counties and states.

The population count is foundational for the formulas that control federal spending, especially for major programs designed to benefit low-income populations. Assuming the Congressional Budget Office’s estimate of budget outlays grows by roughly 6.5 percent annually through the next decade, a proportionate growth in Census-driven spending would account for almost $13 trillion in federal expenditures between 2018 and 2028.

The potential undercount of undocumented and other respondents could cut aid and program funding to areas of need around the country.

Programs that could be affected by a significant undercount include Medicaid ($370.6 billion in 2017), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (also known as food stamps, $68.2 billion), and Head Start ($9.2 billion). A separate 2018 George Washington study estimated that 37 states lost an average of $1,091 per missed person in grants from only five programs administered by Department of Health and Human Services, including Medicare and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).

The Supreme Court will rule on the citizenship question case by June, but the potential consequences could be felt for decades to come.

Author: Frank Bass

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