While other stories, like the fallout from the Mueller report, or whether former Vice President Joe Biden pulls the trigger on another presidential run, will likely dominate news coverage, another critical story may fly under the radar. On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in Department of Commerce v. New York, a case that will decide whether a question about citizenship will be included in the 2020 Census.
The roots of the case stem from the announcement in March 2018 by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross that the next Census form would include a question about whether each person being counted is a U.S. citizen. It was not a groundbreaking move. In fact, inquiries about a person’s citizenship had been asked of all respondents up until 1950. A decade later, the Census questionnaire had a question about place of birth and the long form included a citizenship question until 2000.
Democrats have been apoplectic for months. Earlier this month, a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing devolved into political theater after Ross declined to appear before the panel.
Democratic presidential candidate and California Sen. Kamala Harris tweeted over the weekend that simply asking the question represented a “blatant attempt to suppress immigrant families from being counted in our nation,” adding that Congress should act to “ensure the integrity of the Census is protected.”
So, why does it matter and why are Democrats so opposed?
Two words: Money and power.
While it is certainly important to asking about citizenship to obtain an accurate sense of how many illegal aliens are in the U.S., what is of greater significance is that the data gathered is used to determine congressional districts and how much of the pot of federal funds each states get.
A 2018 Washington Post editorial offered a nice, succinct explanation of Democratic rage.
“The Census Bureau’s once-a-decade count of the country’s population determines where federal money goes and how political power is divided among states. Whether by design or incompetence, the Trump administration is threatening to rig the count against Democrats,” the editors wrote.
In 2009, Republican Sens. Michael Bennett of Utah and David Vitter of Louisiana sponsored an amendment to get a citizenship question added to the census form and while it failed, the issue did not.
Democrats have returned to their claim a citizenship question will dissuade illegal aliens from participating, thus resulting in an undercount among Hispanics. That is important to them because Hispanics tend to vote Democrat.
So nervous about the citizenship question resulting in a loss of voters, one of the very first bills introduced by Democrats in 2019 was the “Every Person Counts Act.”
In short, the bill would require that “the total number of persons” in each state be counted and it would prohibit any “information regarding United States citizenship or immigration status” from being elicited in the census.
Democrats also contend that the Census Bureau should make no differentiation between legal and illegal or citizen and non-citizen because, they say, the Constitution demands “every person” be counted. There is an important difference, however, between counting every person, including illegal aliens, and apportioning representation based on their presence.
Hans Van Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, counters that the term “persons” has been interpreted in different ways.
For example, he wrote in 2009 that under the 14th Amendment’s due-process requirements, “corporations are included in the term ‘persons.’ I seriously doubt that those who argue that ‘persons,’ as used in the Census clause, includes all illegal aliens would also argue that corporations must be included in the count.”
The matter of Department of Commerce v New York may not be the sexiest story, but the ramifications of the Supreme Court’s decision will be making headlines for years to come.