The whole point of messing with the Census was a political scheme to facilitate the Republican gerrymandering of the United States Congress, state legislatures, and local governments nationwide. This is a mission critical for a dying party that can survive only by cheating democracy. So it is that while Donald Trump’s attempt to add a citizenship question to the Census failed, the mission continues.
The Census scheming was thwarted when, as Dale Ho, the director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, notes, the Supreme Court “saw through [Trump’s] lie about needing the [citizenship] question for the Voting Rights Act. It is clear he simply wanted to sow fear in immigrant communities and turbocharge Republican gerrymandering efforts by diluting the political influence of Latino communities.”
Unfortunately, Trump is scoping out new avenues for warping the process of drawing congressional, legislative, and local government districts in a way that he clearly hopes will favor his partisan allies. The concern is that the president and his allies are trying to help Republican-controlled state legislatures and governors gerrymander district lines after the Census by using alternative sets of data that are more narrowly drawn and more likely to favor Republicans.
The latest vehicle for advancing the mission is an executive order, outlined by Trump in his Rose Garden appearance on Thursday, that seeks to collect so-called “citizenship data” collected from federal agencies, with an eye toward identifying what the president refers to as the “voter eligible population.”
“Some states may want to draw districts based on voter eligible population,” announced Trump, signaling a clear interest in using the narrower—and more Republican-friendly—data sets to guide reapportionment and redistricting decisions made by Republican-controlled state legislatures. This was the essential, and unsettling, signal with regard to Trump’s order.
Michael Li, the senior counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, said after Trump’s announcement that
the biggest consequence I think people are concerned about is the potential that the data would be used in redrawing district boundaries, both legislative and potentially congressional district boundaries, which happens after the census. Some people have wanted for a long time to draw districts not to equalize all of the people—total population—but instead to equalize the number of eligible voters or the number of citizens in districts. They haven’t had the data to be able to do that reliably. This may enable them, if it’s released and proven to be reliable enough, to be able to do that.
Congressional and legislative districts drawn based on Census data are designed as a reflection of the full population that officials are elected to represent. Using more narrowly defined “Citizen Voting Age Population” would not reflect the whole population of the districts; it would, however, facilitate even more Republican-friendly gerrymandering than already exists. Documents obtained from a Republican operative revealed that the plot to push citizen-only redistricting and reapportionment was intended to be “advantageous for Republicans and non-Hispanic whites.”
But this is about more than the petty partisanship of Trump and his allies. This is a threat to the basic premises of representative democracy as they have historically been understood.
As constitutional-law scholar Bruce Ackerman reminds us,
The 14th Amendment, enacted in 1868, abolished the 1787 compromise counting slaves as 3/5 of a person and gave Congress new marching orders. It declared that “representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State.”
This insistence on persons, not citizens, was deliberate. While the 13th Amendment freed the slaves, it did not grant them the right to vote—and the Republican leadership in Congress did not yet have the votes to give them that right. Moreover, central players like Speaker Thaddeus Stevens and Senator Charles Sumner were strong allies of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the rising feminist movement of the 19th century. They insisted on the inclusion of women in the head count as a first step toward their ultimate goal of female suffrage.
The Brennan Center’s Li explains:
Representation and voting have always been different things. At the time of the country’s founding, in fact, most adult white men couldn’t vote because of property restrictions and the like, and yet they were clearly entitled to representation. Women couldn’t vote until the 1920s, and yet they were entitled to representation. And we’ve always thought that people have the right to petition their government for redress of grievances, to participate in town halls, to, you know, otherwise show up at meetings.
Common Cause national redistricting director Kathay Feng says that “any attempt to draw legislative districts that does not include all people” attacks the understanding that “every person in the United States deserves representation in our government.” It also skews the reapportionment and redistricting process to favor particular regions, particular states, and a particular party. Common Cause and the ACLU will keep on these issues. But so, too, must grassroots activists in the states, where gerrymandering threats play out.
The president and his allies have been forced to change course. But they are still on the same mission. So, while the good news is that a citizenship question will not appear on the Census, Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) is right to remind us that “the bad news is that this administration still has the same poisonous political motivations that drove them to undercount communities of color for partisan gains, and we need to remain vigilant to protect our democracy.”