Author:Welch, Matt

WHEN THE IDEA of measuring the United States' population every 10 years was first codified, the mission was pretty straight-forward: Tally up the "Number of free Persons" living in each state so that seats in the U.S. House of Representatives can be apportioned accordingly.

Many things have changed since then, not least the definition of "free persons." But the primary directive of what has come to be known as the Census has remained the same. Until now.

On March 26, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced that the decennial survey in 2020 will for the first time in 70 years ask all respondents about their citizenship status. Ross made that call despite warnings from six previous directors of the Census Bureau that doing so would place the "accuracy" of the study at "grave risk," due to the likely increase in nonresponses among households and communities with heavy concentrations of illegal immigrants.

"It is simply inconceivable to me there would not be a very high level of anxiety around that question," former director Vincent Barabba (1973-76) told Mother Jones. It's "beyond comprehension at this point. It would be really bad."

Confronted with such concerns, Ross made a remarkable admission: The risk of increased headcount inaccuracy is worth it. "Even if there is some impact on responses... the citizenship data provided to [the Department of Justice] will be more accurate with the question than without it," he wrote in an explanatory memo, "which is of greater importance than any adverse effect that may result from people violating their legal duty to respond."

In other words, a secondary or even tertiary purpose of the Census is now more important than its original constitutional mission.

What does the Justice Department have to do with survey questionnaires, anyway? The official story is that Attorney General Jeff Sessions et al. are eager to collect more comprehensive data so that they can better enforce the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which aimed to prevent states and localities from interfering with African Americans' suffrage. Yet Sessions repeatedly characterized that law as "intrusive" during his confirmation hearings, and since then federal enforcement actions have ground to a near halt.

In a memo to Ross, the Justice Department correctly pointed out that information gleaned from the Census--which measures every household--is far more robust than the bureau's monthly American Community Survey (ACS), which instead samples about 2.6...

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