The Subtext of the Ongoing Census Battle
By: Heba Mohammad/Arab America Contributing Writer
In the two weeks since the Supreme Court decided the Administration’s reasoning for including a citizenship question on the 2020 Census was invalid, chaos has ensued as the Department of Justice and the president have shared conflicting information with the public and with the courts about what comes next. Most recently, the DOJ changed its legal team on the cases, provoking further confusion among interested parties. As the back and forth continues, it is necessary to step back to examine the bigoted subcontext fueling the Administration’s attacks on the census and American democracy.
Since the first mention of the Trump Administration’s plans to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census in early 2018, their motives have been in question. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross’ official rationale depicted the addition of a question as a response to a Department of Justice request for citizenship data as a requirement for enforcement of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. As is now widely known, that story was a lie.
Fast forward to late May 2019. By this point, the Supreme Court heard arguments related to the citizenship question case and the gerrymandering cases, and the public and the courts were privy to information that Ross’ statements were false. Tensions were already high when the Hofeller documents—a series of files belonging to the late Republican strategist & gerrymandering mastermind Thomas Hofeller that detail plans to depress voter turnout in, and influence of, minority communities by including a citizenship question on the census and following up with strategic gerrymandering—were publicly shared, effectively confirming the discriminatory motives behind the question.
These documents were not considered by the Supreme Court before their June 27th decision to keep the citizenship question off the 2020 Census because the Commerce Department’s reasoning was, simply put, fabricated to cover up the true motives and series of events. In particular, the Court took issue with the Commerce Department’s claim that they need a citizenship question to fulfill a DOJ request; the problem is the DOJ request was submitted after the Commerce Department asked them to submit one.
Significantly, the Court’s decision did leave a door open for the Administration to add a question if they could provide a valid reason for it that fits within the parameters of the Administrative Procedures Act (APA), the basis of the suit they were considering. This opening and the bigotry-fueled tenacity of the Trump Administration have led to a near-daily struggle to stay abreast of census-related updates as the Administration works to add the citizenship question through other means.
The interest in the continued pursuit of the question’s addition has allowed another census case to proceed in Maryland after DOJ attorneys confirmed the exploration of other means for including the question. This case, which is one of several ongoing cases in multiple states, is based on claims of discrimination against immigrant communities and is expected to uncover specific evidence of the Administration’s intention to discriminate against immigrant and minority communities.
Such revelations will introduce additional evidence into conversations that have happened throughout this presidency and that point out what seems obvious: this Administration is targeting underrepresented and minority communities with an agenda rooted in bigotry in an effort to undermine the public’s trust in the democratic process.
And while there is a general understanding that this is the case, the narrative about legality, procedure, and mitigating an undercount that has dominated conversations as of late has distracted from this basic reality and the consequences that may result.
While the Administration’s outward goal is to have a citizenship question on the census, the subversive goal is to sow public mistrust in this vital piece of the democratic process. Whether or not the Administration succeeds in adding the question, the widespread hesitancy to participate that continues to grow out of the recent confusion is a win for them.
The same day the SCOTUS decision on the census was announced, so, too, was their decision in two gerrymandering cases out of North Carolina and Maryland, Rucho v. Common Cause and Lamone v. Benisek, respectively. In summary, the Court decided to play no part in negotiating political questions like those presented in the cases despite the obvious and confessed partisan motives at play when the district maps were redrawn in 2011.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Thomas Hofeller’s influence reappeared in these cases with a clear end: to gerrymander districts to give Republicans an undeserved advantage in elections. The Court’s decision will signal to ill-intentioned legislators in either party an opportunity to redistrict as they deem fit, and with no regard for consequences or basic fairness to preserve the democratic principles they represent.
The two issues, census and gerrymandering, are inextricably connected and have an unmatched impact on the functionality of democracy. As a result, it is necessary that individuals trust both processes for democracy to thrive. Unfortunately, the Administration realizes this and has gone to great lengths to undermine both in both the courts and in public opinion.
Should the Administration succeed in irreparably weakening democracy or the public’s trust in it, the floodgates will open to allow the continued implementation of their bigoted agenda.
There is a hopeful element to this story, however.
The Administration’s multi-pronged attack on democracy relies on average Americans to sit out of the process and let others dictate how their democracy works.
They are counting on you to let their attacks on democracy slide. Don’t.
Congress has the authority to stop the addition of a citizenship question, and any untested questions in the future, bypassing the Census IDEA Act. It is within your power to call your representative and demand accountability. You can do it now, and again tomorrow, and again the next day. Call until the person on the other end of the message recognizes your voice, and then call some more about the census and any other policies you care about.
The fear many communities feel about filling out the census will not be eliminated overnight, but you can commit to knowing and sharing the right information with your networks. It’s easy to do: simply sign up for updates from the #YallaCountMeIn Census campaign, and you’ll get all the key, and accurate, the information you need to keep your community informed.
In the fight against gerrymandering, many states have adopted, or are in the process of adopting, accountability measures to prevent partisan redistricting. Public opinion is overwhelmingly in favor of fair maps, and ballot-initiative-implemented independent redistricting commissions are growing in popularity because they are proven to work. In Michigan, a Facebook post sparked their redistricting reform, and their success is a model for other states now.
There is nothing stopping you from posting to your Facebook or texting 10 friends to say, “Hey, we deserve better. We deserve a democracy that works for us. Can I count on you to help me jumpstart this movement?”
Options exist to hold elected officials, even the President, accountable. As the legal battles continue, the people will be calling, organizing, and making themselves heard because it is their house that is threatened by these attacks on democracy and their communities.
Undoubtedly, protecting American democracy won’t come easy. But of all the traditions celebrated earlier this month, none are more true to the American spirit than the exercise of democratic rights, and the willingness to fight for it.
Heba Mohammad is a National Field Coordinator at the Arab American Institute