Last year, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross announced that the Trump administration intended to add a new question to the 2020 Census: "Is this person a citizen of the United States?" Almost immediately, a collection of demographers, statisticians, social scientists, researchers, legal experts, civil rights advocates, and current and former government officials raised the alarm. They warned that, not only was the question unnecessary, but it would cause the census to dramatically undercount immigrant communities, in particular Latinxs.
Now, newly unearthed documents reveal that explicit intent to diminish Latinxs' voting power could have been part of the citizenship question's origin. The documents, stored on the hard drive of GOP strategist (and "Michelangelo of gerrymandering") Thomas B. Hofeller, who died last summer, came to light in a court filing this week. Hofeller's estranged daughter first mentioned the drive's contents to the advocacy group Common Cause last year. The group completed the court filing and publicized the documents on Thursday.
Hofeller's hard drive reveals his role in the creation of the citizenship question. The story begins with a study Hofeller completed to see how political maps would change if they were based not on an area's current population, but rather on a count of U.S. citizens of voting age. In the study, Hofeller wrote that such a change "would be advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic whites," and would diminish Democrats' voting power. The problem with implementing such a plan, however, was that few counts existed of U.S. citizens of voting age—most population measures, like the census, don't explicitly measure that sub-section of the population. "Without a question on citizenship being included on the 2020 Decennial Census questionnaire," Hofeller's study concluded, "the use of citizen voting age population is functionally unworkable."
According to court testimony from the Trump transition official in charge of the census, Hofeller approached members of the Trump team as they prepared to take office and encouraged them to add the citizenship question to the 2020 Census. Hofeller appears to have continued to play a key role in 2017 as the Trump administration came into power: The New York Times reports that Hofeller's "digital fingerprints" appear on some of the key documents the Department of Justice and the Census Bureau created to justify the citizenship question. In one instance, a paragraph in a Department of Justice memo—arguing that the question was necessary to enforce the Voting Rights Act of 1965—appears to be written word-for-word by Hofeller.
After Ross formally announced the addition of the question last year, opponents accused him of attempting to corrupt the census to augment Republican voting power. In response, Ross claimed that he chose to add the question to help the Department of Justice enforce the Voting Rights Act. But, as Pacific Standard reported last month, "multiple courts have found that Ross wanted to add the question regardless, and then pressured the Department of Justice to find a justification for it."
The release of the Hofeller documents could add new weight to advocates' criticism of the citizenship question. In January, when a federal judge blocked the question, Dale Ho, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Voting Rights Project, said in a statement:
The court's ruling reaffirms what we have long known—that Secretary Ross' decision to add a citizenship question was a blatant and illegal attempt to undercount immigrant communities. ... The inevitable result would have been—and the administration's clear intent was—to strip federal resources and political representation from those needing it most.
Though multiple federal courts have blocked the citizenship question, the case is now before the Supreme Court. With five conservative justices on the bench, many expect the court to rule in favor of the Trump administration. During oral arguments, those five justices indicated their willingness to allow the question, even as experts decried its issues. Though the Hofeller documents shed new light on the origin of the citizenship question, some expect that the court will still rule to allow it.