New results detail Trump’s plan to use the census for partisan gain

A new stash of documents obtained by Congress confirmed that the Trump administration pushed to add a citizenship question to the census to help Republicans win the election, not to protect people’s right to vote, concluded Wednesday. a House committee report.

The Oversight and Reform Committee report, the culmination of a year-long investigation, detailed new findings based on draft internal memos and secret email communications between political appointees at the Department of Commerce, which oversees the Census Bureau, and their counterparts in the Department of Justice.

The documents provided the most definitive evidence yet that the Trump administration aimed to exclude noncitizens from the count to influence the distribution of Congress that would benefit the Republican Party, the report concluded, and that senior officials used a false pretext to build a legal case to ask all residents of the United States if they were American citizens.

Former Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in congressional testimony that the government decided to add the question because it needed more accurate citizenship data to enforce the US Voting Rights Act. 1965. But the June 2019 Supreme Court ruled that the justification “appears to have been contrived,” and a week later the Trump administration abandoned its quest to ask about citizenship in the 2020 census.

Still, a protracted fight between the House committee and former President Donald J. Trump over the release of a trove of documents that could shed light on the issue dragged on until the end of his term. mandate. After Mr. Trump left, the committee reached an agreement with the Commerce and Justice Departments to obtain the previously withheld documents.

“For years, the Trump administration delayed and obstructed the Oversight Committee’s investigation into the real reason for adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census, even after the Supreme Court ruled that the the administration’s efforts were illegal,” Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney of New York said. , chair of the committee.

“Today’s memo lifts the curtain on this disgraceful conduct and clearly shows how the Trump administration covertly attempted to manipulate the census for political gain while lying to the public and Congress about their goals,” said she declared.

“Executive officials who discuss important issues before formulating policy are proof of good government,” ministry spokesman Kevin Manning said at the time.

The committee was expected to draft a bill on Wednesday to strengthen the institutional independence of the Census Bureau to prevent political interference in the agency.

Wednesday’s report cites several drafts of an August 2017 memo on the citizenship issue prepared by James Uthmeier, a political appointee and attorney at the Commerce Department, which show him first expressing his skepticism and ultimately his strong support for the inclusion of the question.

“More than two hundred years of precedent, as well as substantially compelling historical and textual arguments, suggest that citizenship data is unlikely to be used for representative distribution purposes,” Uthmeier said in a first memo.

In later versions, Mr. Uthmeier and another political appointee, Earl Comstock, changed or removed language that said adding a citizenship question was likely illegal and unconstitutional, investigators found.

“Ultimately, we don’t make decisions about how the data should be used for dispatch, that’s up to Congress (or possibly the president) to decide,” Uthmeier said in an email. later to Mr. Comstock, to whom a revised memo was attached.

“I think that’s our hook here,” he wrote.

Officials also added language to emphasize the Secretary of Commerce’s discretion to add the question of citizenship.

The final memo came to the opposite conclusion of the original draft, saying that “there is nothing illegal or unconstitutional about adding a question of citizenship” and asserting, “There are grounds for legal arguments on which the founding fathers intended to base the breakdown count. legal inhabitants.

A handwritten note from Mr. Uthmeier to John Gore, a political appointee at the Department of Justice, demonstrated that the political appointees had pushed the Department of Justice to ask the Department of Commerce to add the question of citizenship, according to the report.

The Department of Justice eventually sent a formal request in December 2017 to the Department of Commerce requesting that “critical” information be obtained from households. Mr Ross later said that by adding the question to the 2020 census, the agency was responding to that request.

Mr. Ross could not be reached for comment, but a spokeswoman for the Florida governor’s office, where Mr. Uthmeier now works as chief of staff, said in a statement that Mr. Uthmeier had worked to obtain a citizenship question in the census. because “it would be useful to know how many people are illegally in this country”.

“You wouldn’t think it would be a controversial policy, given that it had previously been in census surveys for over 150 years,” spokeswoman Christina Pushaw added. (Citizenship-related questions were dropped from the census after 1950 to improve accuracy and response rates.)

Every 10 years, the federal government conducts a census to enumerate everyone in the country. Everyone is counted without exception, whether adult or child, citizen or not.

The tally is used to allocate funds to federal programs. It also has a significant impact on national politics, as it is used to allocate representation in Congress, the Electoral College, and in state legislatures.

Adding the citizenship question would have meant asking every member of every household in the country about their citizenship status.

The United States is home to some 22 million people who are not citizens but are legally in the country. Among them are green card holders, working visa professionals and foreign students. About 11 million are undocumented.

Experts predicted that the citizenship question would have intimidated immigrants – legal and undocumented – into avoiding the census, leading to an undercount of millions that would most likely have undermined the Democrats, shifting political power from various urban areas to rural areas.

Evidence filed in the lawsuits against the addition of the citizenship issue suggested that partisan gain was at least a factor, and very likely its primary purpose. The new findings seem to confirm that was the case.

In Supreme Court arguments in April 2019 on the legality of including the question, the Trump administration argued that the benefits of obtaining more accurate citizenship data outweigh any harm from the likely depressed response to the question. census.

And he dismissed accusations that the Commerce Department concocted a rationale to add the question to the census.

During its investigation, the House committee found that as early as 2015, members of Mr. Trump’s inner circle, including Steve Bannon, began discussing the possibility of adding a citizenship question to the census. And it later emerged that Thomas B. Hofeller, a political strategist and gerrymandering expert who died in 2018, played a role in the decision to add the question.

Mr. Ross, a billionaire businessman appointed by Mr. Trump to head the Commerce Department, led the effort. In announcing his decision to add the question in March 2018, he described it as being based on months of research by the Census Bureau and advice from members of Congress, businesses and groups with an interest in an accurate count.

The committee’s report says the documents describe it very differently.

“The documents released today demonstrate how political actors have sought to corrupt a basic function enumerated in the Constitution: the counting of all the people of America every 10 years,” said John C. Yang, executive director of the Asian American Justice Center, a civil rights organization that was among the litigants on the citizenship issue.

“Secretary Ross has chosen to pursue his political goals by any means available,” Yang said.

The Fair and Accurate Census Guarantee Act, drafted by Ms Maloney, would seek to insulate the agency from political pressure by limiting the number of appointees by authorized political figures to the Census Bureau to three, including the director of the agency.

Only the director can make operational, statistical or technical decisions for the ten-year count, according to the bill, and only one person can be appointed as a deputy by the director and this person must be a career civil servant.

Terri Ann Rosenthal, a census consultant to civil rights groups, said the legislation was essential to protect the agency and restore public confidence in its integrity.

“There is nothing more critical to a system of democratic governance than objective and reliable statistics,” she said. “Political interference undermines the ability of the office to carry out this mission. Our democracy has a census at its heart.

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