Resistance from Inside
The Justice Department’s long-sought request finally materialized on Dec. 12. Three pages long, it called the citizenship question “critical” to getting precise enough data on noncitizens to enforce the Voting Rights Act. Citizenship data from the American Community Survey, it said, was not granular enough.
Census Bureau experts say that is untrue, noting that the Voting Rights Act has been enforced since 1965 with data from the community survey or its equivalent. Regardless, the new question sent Census Bureau staff scrambling. Because there are so few questions on the census, making accurate responses crucial, the bureau typically field-tests new questions for years before deciding whether to use them.
Now Ron S. Jarmin, the bureau’s acting director, had only months to complete that evaluation by April 1, the deadline to notify Congress of the 2020 questions.
But inside the bureau, resistance to the question was growing, with the agency’s chief scientist, John M. Abowd, concluding that the question was unnecessary. By melding existing data, he wrote, the bureau could give Justice more accurate citizenship data than could a census question — and more cheaply.
A citizenship question “is very costly, harms the quality of the census count, and would use substantially less accurate citizenship status data than are available from administrative sources,” he wrote. It also would deter at least 630,000 households from completing the form.
Mr. Jarmin, the acting bureau director, asked to brief the Justice Department on Mr. Abowd’s findings. But Mr. Sessions personally rejected that, court documents show, ordering underlings not to consider ways of gathering citizenship data beyond the citizenship question.
News of the request, meanwhile, unleashed storms of protest from demographers, former census directors, and stakeholders — shopping-center operators, philanthropies, even A.C. Nielsen, the marketing research colossus — that depend on accurate census results. Private experts and academics on the Census Scientific Advisory Board labeled the citizenship question “a serious mistake which would result in a substantial lowering of the response rate.”