Despite warnings from Census research officials that the addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 Census would be the most expensive option for improving citizenship data, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross chose to implement the Department of Justice’s request to add such a question, according to documents released by the Commerce Department.

In December 2017, the Department of Justice formally sent a letter to the Department of Commerce requesting that a citizenship question be added to the 2020 Census to help the agency enforce the Voting Rights Act. The department currently derives its data from the American Community Survey, which is administered regularly only to portions of the U.S. population and includes a citizenship question.

By the end of March 2018, the deadline for informing Congress of additions to the decennial census, Ross announced that he had decided to pursue the DOJ’s request.

The documents, which were released by Democrats on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee June 8 and are part of ongoing litigation brought against the question, reveal that in a Jan. 19 memo, John Abowd, chief scientist and associate director of research and methodology at the Census Bureau, determined three options for responding to the DOJ request:

  • Decline the request, with no change in the census contents. This option would cost a predicted $350,000 on top of current census costs to help DOJ develop a better predictive model for their Voting Rights Act cases. (Alternative A)
  • Accept the request and include the question on the 2020 Census. This option would cost a predicted $27.5 million on top of current census costs, as workers would have to physically go to households that don’t fill out the questions out of fear or confusion over the citizenship question. (Alternative B)
  • Decline the request, but attempt to obtain citizenship data through administrative records held by other agencies. This option would cost a predicted $2 million on top of current census costs to cover the acquisition and development necessary to integrate multiple data sources. (Alternative C)

Abowd recommended that the Department of Commerce undertake either Alternative A or C.

“Alternative B better addresses DOJ’s stated uses than Alternative A. However, Alternative B is very costly, harms the quality of the census count, and would use substantially less accurate citizenship status data than are available from administrative sources,” said Abowd.

“We are confident that Alternative C is viable and that we have already ingested enough high-quality citizenship administrative data from [the Social Security Administration] and IRS. The [U.S. Customs and Immigration Services] data are not required. They would, however, make the citizenship voting age tabulations better, but the administrative data we’ve got are very good and better than the data from the 2000 Census and current [American Community Survey]. The type of activities required for Alternative C already occur daily and routinely at the Census Bureau.”

Documents show that Ross then asked Abowd’s team to evaluate a potential Alternative D, which combined B and C.

In a March 1 memo, Abowd found Alternative D would fail to improve upon previous options:

“Using the 2020 Census data only to fill in gaps for persons without administrative data on citizenship would raise questions about why 100 percent of respondents are being burdened by a citizenship question to obtain information for the two percent of respondents where it is missing. In sum, Alternative D would result in poorer quality citizenship data than Alternative C. It would still have all the negative cost and quality implications of Alternative B outlined in the draft January 19, 2018, memo to the Department of Commerce.”

Ross, however, disagreed with the assertion that a citizenship question would depress response rates, claiming that response rate comparisons between the 2010 Census (which did not contain a citizenship question) and the 2010 American Community Survey (which does include a citizenship question and is administered to a select group of people in the U.S.) could not adequately predict the impact on the 2020 Census.

“I find that the need for accurate citizenship data and the limited burden that the reinstatement of the citizenship question would impose outweigh fears about potentially lower response rate,” Ross wrote in a March 26 letter to Karen Dunn Kelley, undersecretary for economic affairs.

In the same letter, Ross chose to pursue Alternative D, combining the merits and the costs of both B and C.

A political undercurrent runs beneath the debate over a citizenship question, as the format of the 2020 Census could have far reaching impacts on the allocation of House representatives and Electoral College votes for each state.

Legal precedent states that the constitutional intent of the census was to count all U.S. persons for the purpose of government representation, regardless of their citizenship status. This means that states with larger immigrant populations could receive more representatives than those without, a fact that some state officials have critiqued during the citizenship debate.

And though the DOJ opposed using citizenship counts over population counts to allocate representatives on constitutional grounds, a depressed immigrant response rate to the 2020 Census (caused by fear of the citizenship question) could result in immigrant-sparse states keeping representation they would otherwise stand to lose, because immigrant-dense states would not be fully counted.