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OpinionEditorial

Citizenship question will undermine the 2020 census

A sample census form from 2010.

A sample census form from 2010. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Mario Tama

The 2020 census is in danger. That matters to your wallet, ballot and health, among other areas of life touched by the decennial count of the population.

The U.S. census is sometimes described as the country’s largest peacetime mobilization. It counts everyone where they live in the United States. It’s required by the Constitution and was first held in 1790. The early American census was special as it gave the people power by determining voter representation. Those high stakes continue.

Then there is the money. Census data help determine the apportionment of hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funding every year: in NYC, millions for homeland security, housing and education, for starters. Businesses rely on census information to know where to locate. The numbers contribute to an understanding of public health, too. All of the above rely on an accurate count.

That promise is under threat. First and foremost is the Trump administration’s irresponsible addition last week of a question about citizenship status.

There often have been partisan scraps over the census, given its impact on elections. The concern is that in a climate of fear from President Donald Trump’s increased immigration enforcement, noncitizens will be less likely to participate. The fear recalls ugly moments in history, such as when census data were used to help find and confine Japanese-Americans during World War II. Today, privacy of census data are protected, but many may hide. Censuses have often undercounted minorities, even apart from the sin of counting a slave as three-fifths of a person.

Impact of the citizenship issue

The citizenship question could have wide effects — particularly in New York, which has a significant noncitizen population. The same fear of revealing personal data could prevent noncitizen parents from filling out forms for their citizen children, for example. That affects everyone, too. An undercount of your neighbors means less representation and funding for your community.

There is also little time to test this new question. The citizenship question has not been asked of all respondents since 1950. It was included in the “long forms” sent to a small percentage of the population through 2000, not enough of a history to predict impact today. The main reason provided by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in allowing the new question — that it will help enforce the Voting Rights Act — makes no sense because we already have data for that purpose from annual census operations.

There are other worries about the 2020 census. It has been woefully underfunded, leading to canceled tests. Through the chaos and austerity, the census bureau has been without a permanent director or deputy director since Director John Thompson left last year.

Finally, this census will embrace the internet era. Now, you will be able to fill out the census questionnaire online. This is smartly modern. But in an era of hackable elections and malfunctioning software, cybersecurity is critical.

To save the census, the bureau must pave over missteps so far. That includes more outreach and advertising to persuade people to do their civic duty. And Congress should block the potentially disastrous citizenship question. State attorneys general are already filing lawsuits to do the same.

This is too important an issue to politicize. The count must be executed cleanly. After all, either way, for 10 long years, we’ll be stuck with the consequences.

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