BIPP: New census question draws controversy over citizenship and response rates

Harry Morris, Contributing Writer

The 2020 census may seem like a distant matter, but the preparation and controversy surrounding it has already started. The census is important for determining how districts are drawn, where resources and funds are allocated, and how many representatives a state will have in Congress. The U.S. Department of Commerce announced on March 26 that they will be reinstating a question on citizenship status back into the 2020 census. This reinstatement was requested by the Department of Justice so as to better enforce the Voting Rights Act. The Department of Commerce also notes that this will be the same question asked on the American Community Survey, another survey conducted by the Census Bureau.

Critics have come out against the seemingly innocuous question as they fear that it will increase blank responses by non-citizens. Civil rights groups echo this fear, and argue that this will lead to underrepresented groups in the survey. Pre-survey samples conducted by census researchers have shown that a citizenship question makes survey-takers fear for their privacy.

Statistical analysis by the national survey agency Nielsen showed that sensitive questions on immigration status or citizenship lead to no significant decrease in responses. In fact, citizenship status questions had a similar non-response rate compared to seemingly trivial questions in relation to privacy from the government, such as gas costs per month or yearly property insurance.

But it’s not just civil rights groups or citizens who fear for this new question. Seventeen states are suing the Trump administration over the new question, arguing that nonresponse rates will go up in their states. This group of states are comprised of large immigrant populations, and they are worried they will not receive the appropriate funds and allocations necessary as their districts will be underrepresented. The states suing the Trump administration and other critics see the new question as a political, and potentially illegal, move to weaken the influence of immigrant-heavy areas and states, which could prop up the influence of more Republican states.

Proponents say that having the information on citizens and eligible voters will help them to prevent the diluting of non-citizen voices by citizens or permanent residents when their districts are drawn, and that the information will help protect minority voters under Section II of the VRA. The problem remains, however, that we cannot be certain of the validity behind either argument because there is not sufficient data. It is possible that responses will go down or stay the same.

If the Department of Justice does need this data in order to help minority voters, then I think the question is justified. If conclusive evidence existed that adding the question would have significant effects on the response rates, then I would agree with the critics. But without any convincing statistical data, I agree that knowing the amount citizens and non-citizens in our country is legitimate information to obtain. The historical precedence of the question also reassures my opinion. Still, the Department of Justice should better communicate how they will utilize the data to lessen people’s worries. Ultimately, this debate boils down to a widespread question we see in America today: how can we best help those that are repeatedly disenfranchised by voting laws?

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