California Forum

Adding a citizenship question to the U.S. Census could affect future elections. So?

The last Census was in 2010. The 2020 U.S. Census is to add a question about citizenship status.
The last Census was in 2010. The 2020 U.S. Census is to add a question about citizenship status. AP file

Citizenship matters. Or, at least it used to. The question of who is a citizen and who is not is at the foundation of what makes a nation. As a practical matter, however, knowing who is a citizen and who isn’t shapes the way policies get made and resources get allocated.

Which is why the stakes are so high in a legal case concerning whether or not the U.S. Census Bureau may include a question in the next year’s survey asking about the citizenship of the recipient.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments in Department of Commerce v. New York, which seeks to prevent the government from including the question.

A coalition of 17 states, including California and led by New York, sued the Trump administration last year to block the question from being included.

Announcing the lawsuit in April 2018, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said the change was “really just an effort to punish places like New York that welcome immigrants, that are accommodating to immigrants and embrace the American tradition of open arms for all.”


Much of the coverage seems to take for granted that the five conservative justices will support the president’s position, just as they have upheld the bulk of his moratorium on people traveling from certain predominantly Muslim countries (the so-called travel ban), as if this were just one more partisan question for unelected judges to settle.

It isn’t. It’s much bigger.

“It is a dispute over who counts in America,” writes Mark Joseph Stern at the left-leaning Slate. Stern, of course, thinks the citizenship question is beyond the pale. “The Trump administration should have no legal authority to wreak this havoc,” he argues.

Opponents of the question say the Constitution’s census clause mandates the “actual enumeration” of people, not citizens. Asking people about their citizenship question undermines that goal, the argument goes, because noncitizens may be reluctant makes that goal more difficult to accomplish. That will lead to undercounting – some 6.5 million people, according to at least one study – which in turn will lead to misallocation of resources.

Solicitor General Noel J. Francisco conceded that adding the question could lead to a lower count. “At the end of the day,” he told the justices, “if you add any particular question onto the census, you’re always trading off information and accuracy.”

This includes the potential loss of congressional seats and electoral votes. But that’s the name of the game in a sharply divided, red-blue America. Large, cerulean blue states like California wield outsize influence on the national stage. The Golden State also happens to have the largest population of immigrants in the nation. One in five immigrants, legal and illegal, live here.

That’s why Democrats worry so much about the count. As the New York Times put it, “Maps based only on citizen population could tilt in favor of Republicans.” Citizens determining the outcome of elections? Imagine that.

Fact is, the census gathers loads of useful data that people might not otherwise share if they weren’t required by law to do so. The courts have never really had a problem with it – until Trump became president, anyway.

In fact, the census included a citizenship question for decades. The long-form census questionnaire still has a question about citizenship. The dispute is over whether the short form, or “simple count” – the form most everyone gets – should include the question, too.

Of course it should. Why should noncitizens be counted for the purpose of apportioning House seats and Electoral College votes?

Ben Boychuk

These aren’t trivial questions. A bedrock principle of any viable political community is that the citizens have a say in who may join it.

But California officials have tried to blur the distinction between citizen and noncitizen for a long time. Soon after Trump won the presidency, state and local elected leaders fell over themselves to make sure everyone knew the Golden State’s immigrants would have safe harbor, regardless of whether they were in the country legally or illegally.

But the lines had been blurring long before Trump took office. Illegal immigrants have been able to obtain driver’s licenses for years. They are eligible for benefits such as Medi-Cal, CalFresh and subsidized housing. They may receive in-state college tuition and now may hold professional licenses.

Last year, Lizbeth Matteo, a lawyer described in the press as an undocumented immigrant, was appointed to the Student Opportunity and Access Program Project Grant Advisory Committee, a state board.

In California, then, citizenship doesn’t matter as much as it once did. Adding the question to census – and thereby seeking to know who is a full member of our political community and who is not – is a small but essential way of making American citizenship matter again.

Ben Boychuk is managing editor of American Greatness ( Reach him at ben@amgreatness.comor on Twitter @benboychuk.