Liberty Vittert: Census shouldn’t ask about citizenship

President Trump is fighting hard to have the 2020 census ask the question: “Is this person a citizen of the United States?”

Democrats are fighting just as hard to keep the question off the census.

What’s this all about?


The citizenship question sounds reasonable. Why shouldn’t we know how our population breaks down between citizens and non-citizens? The information, by law, can’t be used against anyone, so what’s the big deal?

Since the census, at its core, is a statistical accounting, I decided to look at it as a statistician. I’ve concluded that it makes the most sense to leave the citizenship question off the census, because that will enable the government to get the most accurate count possible of our total population.

The Constitution requires that the federal government count the number of people living in the U.S. every 10 years. The census is supposed to include everyone – regardless of citizenship status. In other words, for the purpose of the census, citizenship is irrelevant.

The major purpose of the census is to determine representation in the House of Representatives and the number of Electoral College votes each state gets, and also to determine the amount of some types of federal aid that go to states and localities, based on their populations.

Representation, Electoral College votes and some federal aid are based on the total number of people – not U.S. citizens – living in states and communities. This is a crucial distinction.

The clear conclusion is that our best chance at getting every single individual living in the U.S. to be counted in the 2020 census is to not include a question that very likely will result in non-responses from a portion of the population.

The first census was in 1790 and counted 3.9 million people living in the U.S. The 2010 census counted 308.7 million people.

The census originally included slaves (though each slave only counted as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of allocating House seats and Electoral College votes), who had no voting or other rights.

White women were also counted in the census, even though women did not get the right to vote nationwide until 1920. Children were also counted, although they were not allowed to vote.

If our nation’s founders wanted to only count eligible voters in the census, they would have limited the count to adult white men.

The accuracy of the census is important. If it fails to correctly count the number of people in the nation, some states could get more representation in the House, more Electoral College votes (which determine who is elected president), and more of some types of federal aid than they are rightfully entitled to. Some could get less.

The argument to not include the citizenship question on the census form is quite clear. Given the political climate and immigration debates occurring in our country, many Democrats contend that asking a citizenship question will scare people away from answering.

The thought is that this will not only stop some illegal immigrants from responding to the census, but also stop some non-citizens living in the U.S. legally, and even some citizens who live in households with non-citizens.

An undercount caused by people not responding to the census could disadvantage Democrats, because states and congressional districts they represent have a higher proportion of immigrants.

As attorney James W. Lucas wrote in the National Review last year: “California’s non-citizen residents give California voters (mostly Democrats) about 11 percent more voting power than Americans in states with smaller immigrant populations have.” As a result, he wrote: “California, the first sanctuary state, has five or six more members of the House that it would if House seats were based on citizen population alone.”

However, it would take a constitutional amendment to count only citizens in determining House representation, Electoral College votes and some types of federal aid. Some people no doubt think this would be a good idea – but unless the Constitution is amended, citizenship will not matter for these purposes.

In arguing to include the citizenship question on in the census, the Trump administration’s Justice Department first said the question would help the department enforce the Voting Rights Act. But the Supreme Court rejected that argument last month.

Now the Trump administration is scrambling to find another way to add the citizenship question to the census. Attorney General William Barr said Monday that the administration will take action in the next few days that he believes will allow the citizenship question to be asked, but did not specify exactly what it will do.

From a purely statistical perspective – without conducting a pilot study – the addition of the citizenship question is a trade-off. What is the cost of increasing non-responses to the census, versus the benefits of gaining knowledge about the number of non-citizens in the U.S.?


The clear conclusion is that our best chance at getting every single individual living in the U.S. to be counted in the 2020 census is to not include a question that very likely will result in non-responses from a portion of the population.

If the government wants to know how many citizens and non-citizens are living in the United States, it has every right (as far as I understand) to do that – but that question, statistically speaking, does not have a place consistent with the mission of the 2020 census. That’s why I believe it should not be included in the census.