Should the 2020 census include a citizenship question?

The Trump administration has proposed to add a controversial citizenship question to the 2020 census. Proponents of the question believe it will help the government collect better data, while opponents believe the question will cause a drastic undercount of the population.


The Trump administration has proposed adding a controversial citizenship question to the U.S. census to collect better data to enforce the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits racial discrimination in voting. However, states like California are claiming that the question violates the Constitution’s requirement for an “actual enumeration”—in other words, an accurate headcount of the population—by discouraging immigrant responses.

To protect the census’s legitimacy, the U.S. Census Bureau must not add the citizenship question in 2020. The distribution of billions of dollars of federal funding for local communities is affected by the census. Without accurate data, planners would under allocate important services like disaster relief, development grants and health services.

The citizenship question would deter undocumented immigrants and minorities, who fear that the question would be used against them and result in deportation. Fewer responses to the census would result in an inaccurate census, which would skew the distribution of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives; in fact, The Atlantic finds that up to 16 states could see a change in congressional seats in the census due to inaccurate representation.

These problems arise because the citizenship question was a last-minute introduction to the 2020 census. It was not able to undergo thorough testing that ensures the accuracy of the survey is unaffected. Robert Shapiro of the Georgetown University School of Business predicts that upwards of 24 million people would avoid responding to the census in fear that their data would be shared with law enforcement.

By law, the Census Bureau is not allowed to disclose individual information with other federal agencies; illegal immigrants will not face deportation due to census data. Yet the problem is that immigrants will still be deterred from participation due to Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and increased immigration raids.

At the end of the day, if the Trump administration wants to truly enforce the Voting Rights Act, they ought to find better ways to do it that can still maintain the accuracy of the census.