A new trove of memos and emails suggests that the plan to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census aimed to cause an undercount that would favor Republicans.
A new stash of documents obtained by Congress has confirmed that the Trump administration pushed to add a citizenship question to the census to help Republicans win elections, not to protect people’s voting rights, a House committee report concluded on Wednesday.
The report from the Committee on Oversight and Reform, the culmination of a yearslong investigation, detailed new findings based on drafts of internal memos and secret email communications between political appointees at the Commerce Department, which oversees the Census Bureau, and counterparts in the Justice Department.
The documents provided the most definitive evidence yet that the Trump administration aimed to exclude noncitizens from the count to influence congressional apportionment that would benefit the Republican Party, the report concluded, and that senior officials used a false pretext to build a legal case for asking all residents of the United States whether they were American citizens.
Former Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross had said in congressional testimony that the government decided to add the question because it required more accurate data on citizenship to enforce the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But the Supreme Court in June 2019 ruled that the rationale “appears to have been contrived,” and a week later the Trump administration abandoned its quest to ask about citizenship in the 2020 census.
Still, a protracted fight between the House committee and former President Donald J. Trump over the release of a trove of documents that might shed light on the matter stretched to the end of his term. After Mr. Trump left office, the committee entered into an agreement with the Commerce and Justice Departments to obtain the previously withheld documents.
“For years, the Trump administration delayed and obstructed the oversight committee’s investigation into the true reason for adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census, even after the Supreme Court ruled the administration’s efforts were illegal,” said Representative Carolyn B. Maloney of New York, chairwoman of the committee.
“Today’s committee memo pulls back the curtain on this shameful conduct and shows clearly how the Trump administration secretly tried to manipulate the census for political gain while lying to the public and Congress about their goals,” she said.
When some internal communications first came to light in 2018, the Commerce Department said that nothing in them contradicted the rationale Mr. Ross had earlier offered to Congress.
“Executive branch officials discussing important issues prior to formulating policy is evidence of good government,” a department spokesman, Kevin Manning, said at the time.
Read More on the U.S. Census
- A Slow Process: The Census Bureau said it would not be able to release many of the statistics from the 2020 census until 2023. The pandemic is partly to blame.
- Privacy Issues: To shield the respondents’ identities, the bureau relies on technology that produces low-quality data. Those studying the census are not pleased.
- A Flawed System: The 2020 census undercounted Hispanic, Black and Native American residents, as well as the population of certain states. Some say it’s time to rethink the longstanding model.
- 1950 Census: Federal law kept millions of census forms secret for 72 years. The information recently went online, a bonanza for historians and curious minds.
The committee was expected on Wednesday to mark up a bill to enhance the institutional independence of the Census Bureau in order to prevent political interference in the agency.
The report on Wednesday cites several drafts of an August 2017 memo about the citizenship question prepared by James Uthmeier, a political appointee and lawyer at the Commerce Department, that show him initially expressing skepticism and eventually forceful support for inclusion of the question.
“Over two hundred years of precedent, along with substantially convincing historical and textual arguments suggest that citizenship data likely cannot be used for purposes of apportioning representatives,” Mr. Uthmeier said in an early memo.
In later drafts, Mr. Uthmeier and another political appointee, Earl Comstock, altered or removed language that said that adding a citizenship question was likely to be illegal and unconstitutional, the investigators found.
“Ultimately, we do not make decisions on how the data should be used for apportionment, that is for Congress (or possibly the president) to decide,” Mr. Uthmeier said in a later email to Mr. Comstock, to which a revised memo was attached.
“I think that’s our hook here,” he wrote.
Officials also added language to emphasize the commerce secretary’s discretion over adding the citizenship question.
The final memo reached the opposite conclusion of the initial draft, asserting that “there is nothing illegal or unconstitutional about adding a citizenship question” and claiming, “There are bases for legal arguments that the founding fathers intended for the apportionment count to be based on legal inhabitants.”
A handwritten note from Mr. Uthmeier to John Gore, a political appointee at the Justice Department, demonstrated that the political appointees had steered the Justice Department to ask the Commerce Department to add the citizenship question, the report said.
The Justice Department ultimately sent a formal request in December 2017 to the Commerce Department requesting that the “critical” information be obtained from households. Mr. Ross stated later that, in adding the question to the 2020 census, the agency was fulfilling that request.
Mr. Ross could not be reached for comment, but a spokeswoman for the office of the Florida governor, where Mr. Uthmeier now works as chief of staff, said in a statement that Mr. Uthmeier had worked to get a citizenship question in the census because “it would be helpful to know how many people are in this country illegally.”
“You wouldn’t think that would be a controversial policy, given that it had previously been on the census surveys for over 150 years,” added the spokeswoman, Christina Pushaw. (Questions related to citizenship were removed from the census after 1950 to improve accuracy and response rates.)
Every 10 years, the federal government conducts a census to count all people in the country. Everyone is supposed to be counted without exception, whether they are adults or children, citizens or noncitizens.
The count is used to allocate funds to federal programs. It also has a significant impact on the nation’s politics because it is used to apportion representation in Congress, the Electoral College and within state legislatures.
Adding the citizenship question would have meant asking every member of every household in the country about their citizenship status.
The United States is home to some 22 million people who are not citizens but are in the country legally. Among them are green-card holders, professionals on work visas and foreign students. About 11 million are undocumented.
Experts predicted that the citizenship question would have intimidated immigrants — both legal and undocumented — into shunning the census, resulting in an undercount of several million that would most likely have undermined Democrats, by shifting political power from diverse, urban areas to rural ones.
Evidence filed in lawsuits against adding the citizenship question suggested that partisan gain was at least a factor, and most likely its main objective. The new findings seem to confirm this was the case.
In Supreme Court arguments in April 2019 over the legality of including the question, the Trump administration argued that the benefits of obtaining more accurate citizenship data offset any damage stemming from the likely depressed response to the census.
And it dismissed charges that the Commerce Department had concocted a justification for adding the question to the census.
During its investigation, the House committee found that as early as 2015, members of Mr. Trump’s inner circle, including Steve Bannon, began discussing the possibility of adding a citizenship question to the census. And it later surfaced that Thomas B. Hofeller, a political strategist and expert on gerrymandering who died in 2018, had played a role in the decision to add the question.
Mr. Ross, a billionaire businessman appointed by Mr. Trump to head the Commerce Department, led the effort. In announcing his decision to add the question in March 2018, he portrayed it as being based on months of research by the Census Bureau and advice from members of Congress, businesses and groups with a stake in an accurate count.
The committee report said the documents depicted it much differently.
“The documents released today demonstrate the depths to which political actors sought to corrupt a basic function enumerated in the Constitution: the counting of all people in America every 10 years,” said John C. Yang, executive director of the Asian American Justice Center, a civil rights organization that was among the litigants over the citizenship question.
“Secretary Ross chose to pursue his political goals through whatever means available,” Mr. Yang said.
The Ensuring a Fair and Accurate Census Act, drafted by Ms. Maloney, would seek to insulate the agency from political pressure by limiting to three the number of political appointees allowed at the Census Bureau, including the agency’s director.
Only the director could make operational, statistical or technical decisions for the decennial count, according to the bill; only one person could be appointed deputy by the director and that person must be a career civil servant.
Terri Ann Lowenthal, a consultant on census matters to civil rights groups, said legislation was vital to protecting the agency and to restoring public confidence in its integrity.
“There is nothing more critical to a democratic system of governance than objective, trustworthy statistics,” she said. “Political meddling undermines the bureau’s ability to carry out that mission. Our democracy relies on a census at its core.”