President Donald Trump announced Thursday that he is dropping his administration’s effort to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, an abrupt reversal that came after Trump repeatedly insisted he would push ahead with trying to add the question.
Rather than add the question to the 2020 census, which will go to every household in America, Trump instructed other executive agencies to immediately provide all of their citizenship records to the Department of Commerce, which oversees the census. Census Bureau officials authored a memo last year arguing they could better collect citizenship data using existing government administrative records.
On Thursday night, the White House released the text of an executive order signed by Trump instructing the Commerce Department to obtain citizenship data via all “executive agencies and departments.”
Despite the Supreme Court ruling blocking the census question, “We shall ensure that accurate citizenship data is compiled in connection with the census by other means,” the order states.
“I have determined that it is imperative that all executive agencies and departments provide the Department the maximum assistance permissible ... in determining the number of citizens and non-citizens in the country,” Trump added.
The order also calls on the Commerce Department to initiate “any administrative process necessary to include a citizenship question” on the 2030 census.
Although the Trump administration has said since 2017 it needed the citizenship question in the census for better enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, critics have long said that rationale is fake. At his Thursday announcement, Trump seemed to confirm that. He did not mention the Voting Rights Act and instead focused on how the data could be used to draw districts based only on the citizen voting-age population.
“Some states may want to draw state and local legislative districts based upon the voter eligible population. Indeed the same day the Supreme Court handed down the census decision, it also said it would not review certain types of districting decisions, which could encourage states to make such decisions based on voter eligibility,” he said.
“With today’s order, we will conduct all of the information we need in order to conduct an accurate census and to make responsible decisions about public policy, voting rights, and representation in Congress,” he added.
Congressional seats allocated to states and districts are drawn based on the total population, and switching to using only the citizen voting-age population would benefit non-Hispanic whites. States could still use citizenship data the Trump administration obtains through other means to draw districts this way.
Speaking after Trump, Attorney General William Barr congratulated the president and said the Supreme Court’s ruling had made it logistically impossible to get a citizenship question on the census.
Even though the 14th Amendment says congressional seats get apportioned based on the number of “persons in each state,” Barr said it was an open legal question as to whether people in the country illegally should be counted for apportionment purposes. Many legal experts are skeptical the 14th Amendment excludes immigrants from the count.
“Trump’s attempt to weaponize the census ends not with a bang but a whimper. Trump may claim victory today, but this is nothing short of a total, humiliating defeat for him and his administration.”
The president’s decision is the latest in a stunning series of twists that have come since the Supreme Court essentially blocked his administration from adding the question late last month. Justice Department lawyers said they faced a hard deadline of July 1 to print the census questionnaires, and lawyers confirmed on July 2 that the forms were being printed without a citizenship question.
Shortly after, however, Trump dismissed news reports saying he was dropping the question. A day later, lawyers reversed course in court, saying they had been instructed to add the question after all.
However, on Thursday evening, Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said the department would officially concede in court that it was not adding the citizenship question.
Trump’s decision is a victory for civil rights groups, as well as a coalition of states and advocacy groups, that successfully sued to block the question from going on the census. The groups argued that adding a citizenship question was a blatant effort to intimidate immigrants and minorities from responding to the census.
“Trump’s attempt to weaponize the census ends not with a bang but a whimper,” said Dale Ho, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who represented some of the plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit challenging the addition of a citizenship question. “Trump may claim victory today, but this is nothing short of a total, humiliating defeat for him and his administration.”
“At the very least we have avoided irreparable damage. Or at least, we’ve avoided the biggest potential for irreparable damage,” said Justin Levitt, a former Justice Department official in the Obama administration. “The thing that was most firmly in jeopardy here is the basic count of who is where in the country.”
Even though there won’t be a citizenship question on the census, Levitt said the Trump administration could still try and stir up confusion about responding to the survey.
The Census Bureau’s own experts said fewer people would respond to the survey on their own if it included a citizenship question. An undercount of the U.S. population would have lasting consequences because census data is used to allocate around $880 billion in federal funds each year and is the baseline for business and academic data.
Had Trump chosen to push ahead with a citizenship question, he likely would have faced an uphill battle in court. The Constitution gives Congress — not the president — power over the U.S. Census Bureau. Although Congress gave the secretary of commerce broad authority over the census, the executive branch is still bound by federal laws that prohibit agencies from making policy decisions without going through certain processes to guarantee fairness. There are also multiple court injunctions in place blocking the citizenship question from going on the census.
This article has been updated to include text from the executive order.