Title

Counting on the Census

A court decision on the census is good news - for now.

January 15, 2019
 
 

Well, that’s good news.

On Tuesday a federal judge ruled the Trump administration could not add a question to the 2020 census about citizenship status.* Since this question is being pushed by an administration notably hostile to immigrants and given it has not been part of the census since 1950 (it’s part of the American Community Survey instead), it was bound to be controversial, so the Secretary of Commerce hounded the Department of Justice into providing cover – not that it was great cover. The DoJ only offered the ludicrous excuse that the question was needed to enforce the Voting Rights Act. Not only is it unlikely this data would be necessary for VRA enforcement, this administration has not been noticeably committed to championing voting rights. This is sort of like the Trump administration claiming the FBI is out of order because it unfairly tarnished Hillary Clinton’s reputation right before the election. Oh wait, they did make that claim when firing its director. Never mind.

Conducting a census is hard. Not only is it hard to reach everyone, it’s always tricky to convince people to trust their information will not be misused by the state. After all, census information was used to track down citizens to be placed in internment camps during World War II. Even in a world where our every move and thought is being watched over by machines of loving data extraction, people worry when the government wants information about them. The Census Bureau has worked hard to build trust in their dispassionate pursuit of information that is gathered and analyzed without political interference or favor. This politically-motivated question puts all of that in jeopardy and threatens to leave us without solid data about our population for another decade. A lot of redistricting and defunding can happen in ten years.

The 277-page decision is full of background information about the census** and about this dispute. The table of contents alone is kind of a storyboard of the drama, including:

  • Secretary Ross’s Early Interest in Adding the Citizenship Question
  • Comstock’s Search for a Rationale and an Agency to Request the Question
  • Secretary Ross and His Aides Persist in their Efforts
  • Secretary Ross’s Intervention with the Attorney General
  • AAAG Gore Ghostwrites the DOJ Letter
  • The Attorney General Forbids DOJ to Meet with the Census Bureau

And so forth, leading to the thrilling denouement:

  • Secretary Ross’s Explanation Ran Counter to the Evidence
  • Secretary Ross Failed to Consider Several Important Aspects of the Problem
  • Secretary Ross’s Rationale Was Pretexual.
  • Secretary Ross doesn’t have a Leg to Stand On (Okay, I added that one…)

The decision will be appealed, of course, so who knows how this will turn out.

Previously, the Supreme Court agreed to rule on whether Wilbur Ross can be deposed. Plaintiffs argued his testimony is central to establishing whether Ross’s excuse for asking the question is bogus; the judge concurred and the SCOTUS agreed to hear oral arguments. So far as I can tell the administration’s argument has been that members of the cabinet shouldn’t have their busy schedules interrupted by depositions and besides, you're not the boss of us. The judge who ruled against the administration said in a footnote (the footnotes are epic) anyone who has time to give interviews to Yahoo Finance probably has time for a deposition.  

You might wonder (as some do when I get opinionated) what entitles a librarian to write about something other than libraries and technology. Well, the census provides important information that our patrons use all the time. So there’s that. It would be a shame to screw it up. There’s also the thing that librarians are generally in favor of truth-seeking institutions, democracy, and the public good. Adding this question in a heavy-handed “we’re in charge now, so suck it” move is yet another attempt by this administration to undermine and destroy trust in a public institution run by public servants whose allegiance is not to a president but to the nation.  

In short, librarians have standing in this matter. So ordered.

 

*Specifically, the judge ruled the plaintiffs proved they would be significantly harmed by adding the question and that Secretary Ross violated the Administrative Procedure Act; he did not find Ross’s actions a violation of the equal protection clause, though he suggested the plaintiffs might have made that case had they been able to depose Ross.

**Highly recommended for data nerds.

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