The "Citizenship Question"

U.S. Department of Commerce
U.S. Department of Commerce

Updated July 12, 2019

BLOG: A Final Answer to the Citizenship Question

On March 26, 2018, the U.S. Department of Commerce announced that it would add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census questionnaire. Unlike all other mandatory questions on the form, a citizenship question has not been tested in a contemporary decennial census environment. In June of 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that the Commerce Secretary's rationale for adding the question (Voting Rights Act enforcement) was pretextual and a violation of the Administrative Procedure Act. On July 11, the Administration dropped its efforts to add the question and indicated it would use administrative records from relevant agencies to supplement and input the data. 

There is broad and bipartisan consensus that the addition of an untested question this late in the decennial cycle will suppress rates of self-reporting, balloon the cost of the 2020 Census and ultimately produce lower quality data on our communities. Several lawsuits challenged the addition of the question. Parties to the suits consist of individuals, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, more than 20 state governments and numerous city governments.

The National League of Cities (NLC) and the National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund expressed our sentiments to the Department of Commerce that untested questions should not be added to the mandatory census questionnaire outside of the normal process. Regardless of whether the question is included on the final form, it remains critical that every community is accurately counted during the 2020 Census. Both organizations will continue to update our memberships on the status of the question and provide 2020 Census resources as needed over the next two years, including how to guide the public with concerns about this matter.

Court Action Updates

January 15, 2019 - Southern District of New York issues ruling on New York v. Commerce

Southern District of New York federal judge ruled that the addition of a citizenship question in the 2020 Census questionnaire violated the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), which prohibits federal agencies from acting in a manner that is arbitrary and capricious or not in accordance with law. The administration is expected to appeal the ruling to the Second Circuit, and the case will likely be fast-tracked to the Supreme Court. A final ruling from the highest court is anticipated before the final questionnaires are printed, beginning in June 2019. While it remains uncertain how the case will fare in the appellate system, the first ruling documented a strong case against the question’s addition. 

April 23, 2019 - Supreme Court Hears Oral Arguments in the Commerce V. New York Appeals Case

The Supreme Court hears oral arguments in the Commerce v. New York case, which will likely decide the ultimate fate of the added citizenship question. While it’s impossible to accurately predict SCOTUS rulings based on oral arguments alone, tense debates revealed that the justices were largely falling along ideological lines. Four liberal judges drilled into the federal government on suspected violations to the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), and five conservative judges pushed the defendants on whether the Commerce Secretary truly had no due cause in choosing to add the question. Lisa Soronen of the State and Local Legal Center provides an excellent recap in her blog for CitiesSpeak: “Expect to See a Citizenship Question in the 2020 Census.”

June 27, 2019 - Supreme Court Tentatively Throws Out Citizenship Question

Justice Roberts joins the four liberal judges in partially upholding the lower courts decision. The Court rules that while the Commerce Secretary has discretion to add questions he must do so with a proper cause. The justices ruled that the Secretary's claim that the citizenship question data was necessary to uphold the Voting Rights Act (VRA) was pretextual, but did not entirely rule out the possibility of the Secretary providing a more valid reason to adding the question. For now, do to time constraints, it seems unlikely that the question will appear on the 2020 Census. NLC will continue to update our members on the status of the question. Lisa Soronen of the State and Local Legal Center provides an excellent recap in her blog for CitiesSpeak: "What You Need to Know About the Supreme Court Census Ruling."

July 11, 2019 - Administration Decline the Pursuit of Additional Legal Measures to Add the Question

On Thursday, July 11, the President announced he would not pursue further legal action. In addition, he signed an executive order that compels relevant agencies to share records on citizenship data with the Census Bureau. The goal of this order would be to allow the Census Bureau to use administrative records to match and piece together data on citizenship for census respondents without asking them directly on the questionnaire. While this may produce new data on citizenship, it remains unclear why this action would be necessary given that the federal government continues to obtain and report reliable survey data on citizenship at various geographic levels from the American Community Survey (ACS). Read more about the end of this debate on CitiesSpeak: "A Final Answer on the Citizenship Question."

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