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Democrats Call For Senate Hearing Over 2020 Census And Citizenship Question

Sen. Kamala Harris is among a group of Democratic senators calling for an hearing on the addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 census.
Andrew Harnik
Sen. Kamala Harris is among a group of Democratic senators calling for an hearing on the addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

The announcement of the addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 census questionnaire has launched calls for lawsuits, legislation and now multiple congressional hearings. In a letter written to the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which has oversight of the U.S. Census Bureau, four Democratic senators are calling for a hearing on the upcoming national head count.

Sens. Kamala Harris of California, Tom Carper of Delaware, Gary Peters of Michigan and Claire McCaskill of Missouri — the committee's ranking member — are requesting testimony from Census Bureau staff and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the bureau and made the decision to add the citizenship question. They cite deep concerns about the question as well as the lack of permanent leadership at the bureau and the operational challenges of carrying out the 2020 census.

"Together, these problems risk a substantial undercount of persons in the 2020 Census with wide ranging implications for proportional representation in Congress, state government share of federal dollars, the accuracy of information businesses use to decide where to locate, the availability of affordable broadband service, and natural disaster funding," the senators write in the letter, which was provided to NPR by Harris' office.

"We are concerned that the addition of the citizenship question is tainted by improper political considerations," the letter continues. "DOJ requested the addition of this question in December 2017 based on an unsupported assertion that citizenship data are needed to enforce Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act even though the last time a citizenship question was asked was before the passage of the Voting Rights Act, and no similar requests have been made to support enforcement."

On the House side, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., issued a call on Tuesday for a similar hearing on the citizenship question by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, for which he serves as the ranking member.

"The Trump Administration's plan to insert a new, untested question on citizenship will increase costs for American taxpayers and decrease the accuracy of the census itself," Cummings said in a written statement.

On Thursday, the Census Bureau revealed the wording of the citizenship question in a report to Congress: "Is this person a citizen of the United States?" Such a question has not been included in the census for all U.S. households since 1950, although smaller Census Bureau surveys have included questions about citizenship.

The Justice Department sent the Commerce Department a late request in December for the question to be added, close to nine months after the Census Bureau released a final report of question topics for the 2020 census to Congress.

DOJ said it needs a better count of voting-age citizens from the census in order to enforce protections against voting discrimination under the Voting Rights Act. The department has relied on estimates of U.S. citizens based on the American Community Survey, an annual survey the Census Bureau conducts with a smaller sample of about 3.5 million participants, since the law was enacted. But critics of the citizenship question say they're skeptical of the timing of the Justice Department's request. They're worried that noncitizens, especially immigrants in the country illegally, will be further discouraged from participating in the national head count.

In his memo Monday approving the request for a citizenship question, Ross wrote: "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 a potentially lower response rate."

Asked about Cummings' call for a hearing on the decision, a spokesperson for the Commerce Department responded to NPR by email: "After a thorough review of the legal, program and policy considerations, as well as numerous discussions with the Census Bureau leadership and interested stakeholders, Secretary Ross determined that reinstatement of a citizenship question on the 2020 decennial census is necessary to provide complete and accurate data in response to the DOJ request."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.