The Census Becomes Political
With both the House and the Senate on break this week, President Trump spending the week in New Jersey, and many of those in the financial services policy space still hungover from the Treasury fintech report and OCC fintech charter one-two punch from last week, Washington is virtually silent. But like a duck on the water, there’s quite a lot happening beneath the surface of our politics, despite the quiet in Washington. It’s an important week for determining which party will control the next Congress and, for the GOP, there look to be some storms ahead.
First, pay close attention to the outcome in the special election today to fill former Republican Congressman Pat Tiberi’s Ohio seat. As USA Today astutely observed last week, this contest “shouldn’t be competitive,” but tonight’s outcome could be very close. President Donald Trump won this district by eight points two years ago, but in the final poll going into Election Day, Democrat Danny O’Connor was leading Republican Troy Balderson, who currently serves in the GOP-dominated statehouse, by one point. Balderson had the edge in two earlier polls, taken in mid-June and late July, but his race should have been much easier. Not only did the president win by a landslide, registered Republicans in this district outnumber registered Democrats two-to-one.
O’Connor is just 31 and, as Franklin County recorder, also should have been hindered by low name recognition. (County recorders keep track of property records and, generally, are not household names.) But, in a state led by Trump agitator Gov. John Kasich and that is itself deeply conflicted about the Trump administration, O’Connor’s fresh face might be just what the electorate is looking for and, if it is, that could signal a blue wave this November. (To understand just how strong that wave could be, according to the latest polling analysis from the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, just 14 House seats held by Democrats are vulnerable while 87 GOP seats are.)
The week’s second notable -- and potentially significantly more impactful -- event is the expiration of the U.S. Commerce Department’s deadline for submitting comment on the 2020 U.S. Census questionnaire. That deadline is at midnight tonight.
One of thousands of boring, bureaucratic deadlines, you say? What if it could be argued that the outcome of this notice and comment period could affect the makeup of statehouses and the Congress for a decade.
At issue is whether the U.S. Census Bureau should ask U.S. residents if they are citizens. The U.S. Constitution doesn’t require this question be asked. In fact, the Founding Fathers only instructions regarding the census are that residents must be counted every 10 years “in such Manner as they shall by Law direct.”
The citizenship query isn’t new, but it hasn’t been seen on everyone’s census forms since 1950, and it didn’t always appear before that either. The first census was taken in 1790, and no citizenship question was included. Ditto for 1800 and 1810. In the 1820 Census, residents were asked if they were citizens, but the question went mostly missing again for the half-century between 1840 and 1890. (The 1870 Census did pose this question, but only to men over the age of 21.) The question stayed in place throughout the first half of the 20th century, but in 1960 residents simply were asked where they’d been born. At that point, the Census Bureau reduced the number of census questions asked of all households and created a longer form survey that asked more questions, including about citizenships status, more frequently but to only a small sample of the population. This enabled the Bureau to gather data more frequently without undertaking the enormous cost of a full-scale census. As a result, between 1970 and 2010, only a random group of three to five percent of residents was asked about citizenship status.
In February 2017, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross penned a memo to the Department of Justice (DOJ) asking whether the DOJ would support inserting the query back into the census questionnaire. Ten months later, DOJ directed the Census Bureau to include the question in the 2020 count. The DOJ argued it needed the data to better enforce Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which ensures Americans get to vote regardless of “race, color, or membership in one of the language minority groups.”
Because immigration policy has emerged as one of the most contentious public policy issues facing lawmakers -- and because President Trump made immigration one of his key campaign issues -- it doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to believe there could be alternative reasons for Commerce and DOJ’s interest in resurrecting the citizenship question. The Commerce Department’s notice asking the public for comment spells out why the census data is so important. It’s used to determine:
U.S. House seat reapportionment. The Permanent Apportionment Act of 1929 set the number of U.S. House seats at 435. States that have shown a heavy increase in population will gain seats after the 2020 Census and states with low growth will lose them.
State legislative district boundaries. Census data also determines how state legislatures draw their maps, which can affect the balance of power in chambers where the partisan balance is close.
Federal funding allocations. Census data is used to determine how more than $675 billion in federal funds—about 17 percent of the federal budget—are spent each year.
It stands to reason that, in the current climate, including a question about immigration status might make households less likely to participate in the census. Here lies the twist: that outcome could hurt Trump “red” states the most. Ten of the 14 states with the highest immigrant population growth between 2010 and 2016 -- Alaska, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Nebraska, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, West Virginia, and Wyoming -- voted for President Donald Trump two years ago.
Polls in Ohio’s 12th Congressional District close at 7:30 pm Eastern tonight, so we’ll know relatively soon what that outcome says about Washington’s potential balance of power after November. And though we’ll have to wait several weeks, or even months, for the Commerce Department to sort through its public comments on the Census, it seems a pretty sure bet that the citizenship question will make a reappearance in 2020.