The last time we editorialized on the issue of whether the 2020 census would include a question about citizenship, we made this fearless prediction: We said it seemed likely that the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, would allow the Trump administration to include the question.
In our defense, we were correct about the vote total.
But we were wrong about the outcome, another reminder about what a treacherous business it is to predict high court decisions. As it turned out, Chief Justice John Roberts, now firmly in the role of the court's swing vote, joined its liberal justices in a 5-4 decision that said, in essence, that the administration could not include the question because it had not offered a good enough reason to do so.
At that point, with deadlines starting to click into place for the 2020 census, the administration could have admitted that it lost a close one and allowed the census to move forward.
And, in fact, for a while, that's the way the story seemed to be going.
But that's not the way it played out. President Donald Trump, contradicting statements from officials in his administration, said he and others were working to come up with reasons to ask the question that would pass muster with the court, even as presses started to warm up to print the 2020 forms. This week, Attorney General William Barr told The New York Times that he believed the Justice Department could find a legal path to add the question to the census, although he hasn't elaborated yet.
In the meantime, the Justice Department sought to switch out the team of attorneys working on a case defending the administration's efforts to add the citizenship question; the judge on the case denied the request, saying that the department needed to explain the attorneys' departure and to show that the switch would not hamper the case. As we wrote this on Wednesday evening, the Justice Department had yet to issue that explanation, and sources were telling the Times that the attorneys wanted to withdraw out of ethical concerns and because they believed the case could not be won.
One thing's for certain: As time ticks down until the start of the 2020 count, this legal wrangling isn't helping the census (which hopes to rely on technology to an unprecedented degree) work out its final details.
It's enough to make you suspect that the administration's goal in all of this is to cast doubt on the reliability of the numbers generated by the 2020 census. If that's the case, the effort already could be succeeding: According to the Times, researchers are starting to see coordinated online efforts to undermine public trust in the census and to sow chaos and confusion.
Which is a shame, considering how much is at stake in the census. Of course, information from the census is used to determine which states gain or lose seats in the U.S. House of Representatives (it's been expected that Oregon will pick up a seat). But those population numbers also are used to allocate billions of dollars in federal funds for services such as health care, education and affordable housing. An incorrect count — or an undercount — has real, and serious, consequences for communities. Just this week, for example, a representative of the Census Bureau told the Albany City Council that a relatively low response rate among Albany citizens has cost the state some $5 million each year. (The Sweet Home City Council heard a similar message a few weeks ago.) After a couple of years, that starts to add up to real money — money that could be put to work right here.
The best option now would be for the Trump administration to accept defeat on the census question and to refocus its efforts on making sure the Census Bureau has the resources and support it needs to carry out a successful 2020 count. We've been burned before on our predictions, but our guess is that the administration won't be following that particular path. (mm)