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Census scientist: Citizenship question ill-advised

Breaking with the Trump administration, the chief scientist at the U.S. Census Bureau testified that there is “reliable, quantitative evidence” the response to the 2020 survey would decline if the government includes a question about citizenship.

“You don’t think that adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census is a good idea, correct?” John Abowd was asked on Tuesday by a lawyer representing a group of cities and states, including Minnesota, suing the administration in federal court in Manhattan to remove the question.

“Correct,” Abowd answered.

The states and cities, led by New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood, sued in April claiming the administration is using the question — “Is this person a citizen of the United States?” — to depress the response rate and dilute the political power of immigrants and noncitizens.

The idea is that, spooked by the president’s rhetoric, they may decline to respond to the census out of fear that the data could be used by federal immigration agents to target them or someone in their household, even if they are in the U.S. legally. The states say the addition of the question to the 2020 census hasn’t undergone the usual rigorous testing.

Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson said in April that census directors appointed by presidents from both parties have not included a citizenship question since 1950 out of concern that it would result in an inaccurate count.

Swanson notes that Minnesota allocates state aid to local governments based on census results. They’re also used to apportion congressional seats and set legislative districts.

The administration says the addition of the question is an earnest effort to help minorities by improving enforcement of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965. It argues that the Department of Commerce, which includes the Census Bureau, has full authority to formulate the census and that the citizenship question will make the count more accurate.

The trial could help rewrite the nation’s political map for a decade or more. Results of the census are used to apportion congressional seats and Electoral College votes and help direct billions of dollars in federal aid.

On Tuesday, Abowd testified about a memo he sent in January to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in which he reported the recommendation of staff on three potential courses of action: making no change, adding a citizenship question or using non-census records to supplement the survey data without making changes to the questionnaire.

Census staff recommended against adding the question, which was eliminated after the 1950 census, saying it would involve “major potential quality and cost disruptions,” including at least $27.5 million extra to follow up with the additional people likely not to respond to the questionnaire.

The status quo option was the cheapest and easiest, while using administrative records to supplement the data would add less than $2 million to the cost without affecting the response rate, according to the memo.

Earlier in the day, Lisa Handley, an expert witness for the plaintiff on minority voting rights and redistricting, testified. Handley, who has been an expert in more than 25 voting rights cases, including six on behalf of the Department of Justice, said currently available Census Bureau data are “perfectly sufficient” to determine whether voting rights are being infringed without adding the citizenship question.

U.S. District Judge Jesse M. Furman, an appointee of Barack Obama, is presiding over the two-week trial without a jury. The two sides are expected to finish presenting their evidence this week.

The case is State of New York v. U.S. Department of Commerce, 18-cv-02921, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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