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Supreme Court Rules Census Citizenship Question Is Out, But Worries Persist

Chief Justice John Roberts (second from right) and Justice Neil Gorsuch (center) walk down the steps of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., earlier this month. [NPR]
Chief Justice John Roberts (second from right) and Justice Neil Gorsuch (center) walk down the steps of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., in June 2019.

The Supreme Court ruling that blocked the citizenship question for the 2020 census won’t have much impact on local preparations for next year’s count, local officials say.

But they’re hoping it convinces people to participate in the tally.

“We know the Census Bureau has to get the questionnaire complete,” said Simeon Best, who is heading the Complete Count Committee for Cuyahoga County. “But for our efforts, we’re still pushing forward to reach out to everyone, because we want everyone counted.” 

The Complete Count Committee’s program is a partnership between the Census Bureau, local governments, and community leaders to raise awareness about the decennial count before enumeration begins in April 2020.

The census’ mandate, set out in the U.S. Constitution, is to count every individual living in the United States. But the decision to ask respondents if they are citizens has added uncertainty to preparations.

The court’s ruling Thursday was mixed. It upheld the government’s right to ask the question. But it also said the government’s reason for the question was contrived. The Commerce Department, which oversees the Census Bureau, said asking about citizenship was necessary to help the Justice Department enforce the Voting Rights Act.

Those opposed to including the question said it would lead to significant undercounts, especially among undocumented immigrants who might refuse to participate in the decennial count. 

Census Bureau research shows it is highly likely to scare households with non-citizens, especially within the Hispanic and immigrant communities, from taking part in the constitutionally mandated head count of every person living in the United States. A 2018 national study by the Census Bureau found the question to be a "major barrier" to participation in the head count by every household in the country.

One grassroots Latino advocacy group says too much damage has already been done. Thursday's ruling alone won’t convince skeptical Hispanics to answer their questionnaires, said Veronica Dahlberg, director of HOLA Ohio. She blames the mistrust on government policies like mass deportations.

"I’ve been seeing some polls saying participation is going to be 8 percent less on the census because of everything that’s going on," she said. "I think people are fearful that, 'if I answer this question on the census, am I putting myself in danger, my family in danger'.”

HOLA plans to do everything it can to educate the community and urge Ohio residents to participate without fear "because this is something we’re gonna have to live with for the next 10 years," Dahlberg said.

Undercounts would be particularly problematic for Ohio. Thanks to declining population, the state is expected to lose one seat in the U.S. House and one electoral vote. Congressional representation is determined by the total number of residents in a state, not just the number of citizens.

Census data also determines how the federal government distributes about $880 billion a year in funding for schools, roads and other public services.

An accurate tally of residents is crucial to the county’s operations, Best said.

“If we do not get a complete count, that’s going to affect funds for many, many programs that we issue here. We’re striving hard to engage all communities to make this happen,” he said.

Ashtabula County Commissioner J.P. Ducro heads census awareness efforts in his county. Hispanics comprise 3.4 percent of the county’s residents, according to the last census, conducted in 2010. Ducro hopes the Supreme Court’s ruling restores trust in the census so more people are willing to participate.

“If the ruling effectively removes the barrier from people’s willingness to participate in the census, then that’s great,” he said.

Ashtabula officials were told an inaccurate tally could cost local governments as much as $2,000 per individual per year for the next 10 years, Ducro said. The county has lost population, and Ducro wonders how much of that "loss" is actually due to undercount.

“We had this discussion and I posed the question, whether we are losing population, or are we having fewer numbers of responsible residents participating in the census?" he said. "I don’t know whether we know the answer.”