2020 Census Will Ask About Citizenship Status

The Commerce Department announced that a question on citizenship status will be reinstated on the 2020 Census. This prompted an immediate political backlash.

The Commerce Department announced yesterday that it will be reinstating a question about one’s citizenship status on the 2020 Census.

The decision was made by Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross to help enforce the Voting Rights Act. Congress delegated to the Secretary of Commerce the authority to determine questions to be asked on the decennial census.

On December 12, 2017, the Justice Department requested that the Census Bureau reinstate a citizenship question on the decennial census to provide census block level citizenship voting age population (CVAP) data that are not currently available from government surveys.

DOJ and the courts use CVAP data for the enforcement of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which protects minority voting rights, and the conclusion was reached that having citizenship data at the census block level will permit more effective enforcement of this law. Secretary Ross determined that obtaining complete and accurate information to meet what he felt was a legitimate government purpose outweighed the limited potential adverse impacts.

“I find that the need for accurate citizenship data and the limited burden that the reinstatement of the citizenship question would impose outweigh fears about a potentially lower response rate,” wrote Ross.

The Commerce Department said the citizenship question will be the same as the one that is asked on the yearly American Community Survey (ACS), and it noted that citizenship questions have also been included on prior decennial censuses. Between 1820 and 1950, almost every decennial census asked a question on citizenship in some form. The Commerce Department also noted that current surveys of sample populations, such as the Current Population Survey and the ACS, continue to ask a question on citizenship.


Among other uses, Census data are the basis for determining where federal funds are spent and how congressional districts are drawn.

The Commerce Department’s decision led to an immediate backlash, largely along political lines, after the announcement was made.

Congresswoman Grace Meng (D-NY) said, “We don’t need a citizenship question, we need an accurate census to guide how many seats in the House of Representatives will be reapportioned and how federal funds will be disbursed in the next decade.”

She also said she plans to introduce legislation to block the question from being asked, saying in a statement, “I am deeply disappointed with Secretary Ross, and I will now look to introduce legislation to stop this question from being included on the census.”

Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) had previously introduced legislation to prohibit asking about citizenship status shortly after the Justice Department first requested the citizenship question be added to the Census.

“If the point of the census is to get an accurate count, the least effective way to do it in the anti-immigrant atmosphere engineered by the President is to tuck it into the census questionnaire,” Norton said in a statement at the time.

California said it will be suing to overturn the decision. The state’s Attorney General, Xavier Becerra, said he thought it is illegal for the government to even ask the question and wrote in an editorial, “[Including the citizenship question] would discourage noncitizens and their citizen family members from responding to the census, resulting in a less accurate population count.”

Several other states have said they plan to sue as well.

And former Attorney General Eric Holder, who is now the chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee (NDRC), said that his group also intends to sue the Trump Administration over the citizenship question. “We will litigate to stop the Administration from moving forward with this irresponsible decision,” said Holder.

One of the primary complaints from critics was that it may lead to an inaccurate Census count. However, Department of Commerce Secretary Ross addressed this concern in his decision. He wrote, “The citizenship data provided to DOJ will be more accurate with the question than without it, which is of greater importance than any adverse effect that may result from people violating their legal duty to respond.”

The White House defended the decision to include the question in a press briefing held today. Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, “This is a question that’s been included in every census since 1965, with the exception of 2010, when it was removed. We’ve contained this question that provides data that is necessary for the Department of Justice to protect voters and specifically help us better comply with the Voting Rights Act.”

Per the terms of the Census Act, the list of decennial census questions must be submitted to Congress no later than March 31, 2018.

Memo From Wilbur Ross 2018-03-26

About the Author

Ian Smith is one of the co-founders of FedSmith.com. He has over 20 years of combined experience in media and government services, having worked at two government contracting firms and an online news and web development company prior to his current role at FedSmith.