Top Census Scientist's Testimony Casts Doubt On Motives For Study On Citizenship Question

The researcher says he outlined the cost and harm of adding the question. It didn't matter.

NEW YORK ― The Census Bureau’s top scientist testified Tuesday that neither he nor other top Census officials thought the decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census was a good idea.

The scientist, John Abowd, supervised a team of Census Bureau researchers that studied the effect of adding the question and ultimately advised against it in January. Abowd met with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross only one time to discuss his recommendation, in February, before Ross ultimately decided to add the question.

Abowd testified Tuesday that he and other top Census Bureau officials were surprised to learn in June that Ross was interested in adding the question months before he even began the possibility of studying it. Ross initially said that he began considering the question only after the Justice Department requested it in December so that it could better enforce the Voting Rights Act.

Abowd’s testimony came as part of an ongoing federal lawsuit challenging the Trump administration’s decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census. Abowd’s analysis of the effect of the citizenship question is one of the most important pieces of evidence in the suit for the plaintiffs ―18 states, the District of Columbia, several cities and a handful of immigrant groups ― who say the decision to add the question was motivated by discriminatory intent and ignored clear evidence that adding the question would decrease the number of people who respond to the census. An inaccurate census would have far-reaching consequences, since the survey is used to draw electoral districts and allocate hundreds of billions of dollars of federal funds.

Abowd was repeatedly questioned Tuesday about a January memo he wrote to Ross in which he advised against adding the citizenship question. In the memo, Abowd said it would be very costly and harm the quality of the census count. He also said any citizenship data collected in a census would be substantially less accurate than information that’s available from administrative sources. He recommended that the Census Bureau get citizenship data from existing government records.

Dale Ho, the director of the ACLU’s voting rights project, pressed Abowd about a separate Census Bureau estimate showing that the non-response rate to a census survey with a citizenship question on it increased more among households with at least one non-citizen in it than it did among households of all U.S. citizens. Abowd testified that the Census Bureau was estimating the effect of the citizenship question based on the best information it had and could have better studied the question if it had more notice of the request to add the question because it could have done a randomized control trial.

Ho’s questions to Abowd were meant to undercut Ross’s March memo justifying the decision to add the citizenship question. In the memo, Ross said he set out to take a “hard look” at the possibility of adding a citizenship question and that there was little empirical evidence that adding the question would lead to a decline in response rates.

A Commerce Department spokesman said in a statement Tuesday evening that Ross considered Abowd’s input along with that of other stakeholders.

“Under authority granted to the Secretary of Commerce, Ross determined that the addition of the question, combined with administrative records, would provide the best results to fulfill DOJ’s request. While his decision was ultimately different from Dr. Abowd’s recommendation, the Secretary reached his decision, in part, due to the Census Bureau’s assurances that any drop in self-response rates can and will be remediated by non-response follow operations,” the statement said.

Abowd’s testimony suggested that, based on the Census Bureau’s review of the existing data, adding a citizenship question would decrease the response rate.

Even though Abowd and his team had developed an analysis of the downside of a citizenship question, Department of Justice officials did not want to meet with them to discuss alternatives. Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions blocked Justice Department officials from discussing alternatives, a top official in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said in a deposition.

Abowd said it was unusual for an agency not to meet with the Census Bureau to follow up on a request for data.

Abowd’s testimony is expected to continue Wednesday, when he is expected to face questioning from Justice Department attorneys.

This article has been updated with a statement from the Commerce Department.