The Census Bureau said Tuesday that it requested the information as part of its effort to use existing government records to compile data on citizenship. The agency said it was requesting the records to comply with Trump’s July executive order asking it to do just that after the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the president’s effort to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.
The proposed citizenship question effort set off a firestorm of criticism from civil rights groups and activists who said it would discourage marginalized people, including noncitizens and people of color, from responding to the decennial survey. After the court ruling, the Trump administration has said it would gather citizenship data through other methods, potentially enabling lawmakers to redraw districts to benefit Republicans by leaving noncitizens out of the census count.
HuffPost obtained a draft memorandum the Census Bureau submitted to multiple states that would govern the sharing of driver’s license records. The document outlines a request for monthly driver’s license records between 2018 and 2023. It asks for 11 fields of information that would potentially be on a driver’s license ― including citizenship status and eye color. (The Census Bureau’s request for driver’s license records was first reported by The Associated Press.)
It’s not unusual for the Census Bureau to seek data from states. But two former directors of the Census Bureau said that asking for this specific data is both surprising and unnecessary.
Asking about eye color, in particular, “is very strange,” said Kenneth Prewitt, who served as director of the Census Bureau from 1998 to 2001.
“I cannot imagine how it would be useful in constructing population statistics, which is the task of the Census Bureau — not detailed data about individuals,” Prewitt said.
“We start our discussions by requesting the full list of characteristics as we are aware of them for our data inventory,” said Michael Cook, a Census Bureau spokesperson, in an email. “Then, if the full dataset is not available we will then enter into discussions about what we need for the specific project.”
“For driver’s license records, eye color, is one of the database characteristics so it’s part of initial request,” he wrote.
In general, driver’s licenses aren’t particularly good indicators of citizenship because motorists are only required to update them once every few years, during which their citizenship status may change, Prewitt said. Driver’s license info is only useful for finding addresses and ages, he said.
“Beyond that, they’re no data there,” he added. “That’s not data that’s particularly hard for the Census Bureau to get.”
Officials in Texas already discovered the limits of using driver’s license records to verify citizenship. Earlier this year, the state’s election officials attempted to use driver’s license records to determine the citizenship and eligibility of individuals on its voter rolls. The data the state relied on turned out to be largely inaccurate, and the state eventually agreed, after a federal lawsuit, not to remove voters from the rolls based on those records.
John Thompson, who led the Census Bureau from 2013 to 2017, also said he was surprised to see the bureau going after driver’s license records. States don’t have to provide the records, he said, and obtaining them requires a lengthy privacy negotiation with each state. Thompson said that with the decennial census quickly approaching, it may be too late to start with those negotiations. Officials in Alaska, Illinois, Indiana, Maine and Oregon all told HuffPost they had denied the bureau’s request.
“I’m not sure of the quality and consistency of state drivers license records,” Thompson said in an email. “If I were at Census, I would rather put more efforts into getting SNAP and WIC records to target the undercount of children.”
The Census Bureau said in a statement Tuesday that it was routine for the bureau to gather information from state agencies to be more efficient in data collection and that the information it collected would be stripped of personally identifiable information and be confidential under federal law.
“In 2016, the Census Bureau requested the use of state administrative records that include information such as date of birth, address, race, Hispanic origin and citizenship status for the 2020 Census and ongoing Census Bureau surveys, including the American Community Survey,” the statement said. “Recently, the Census Bureau expanded this request to the states to include driver’s license administrative records surrounding the Executive Order on increasing the use of administrative records for the 2020 Census.”
It was unclear how many states received the request for driver’s license information. HuffPost contacted motor vehicle bureaus in all 50 states. Twelve states ― Alaska, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Oregon and South Dakota ― confirmed they had received the request. No state said it had turned over the records to the Census Bureau yet. Several states said their laws restricted which driver’s license records, if any, they could share with the Census Bureau.
This story has been updated with comment from the Census Bureau.