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Trump Wants Citizenship Data Released But States Haven't Asked Census For That

President Trump, flanked by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross (back) and U.S. Attorney General William Barr, delivers remarks on citizenship data in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, D.C., in July.
Brendan Smialowski
AFP/Getty Images
President Trump, flanked by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross (back) and U.S. Attorney General William Barr, delivers remarks on citizenship data in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, D.C., in July.

After its failed attempt to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, the Trump administration has forged ahead with ordering the Census Bureau to use government records to produce data about the U.S. citizenship status of every person living in the country.

In July, the bureau quietly filed a regulatory document confirming that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross — who oversees the federal government's largest statistical agency — had directed it "to produce Citizenship Voting Age Population" information "that states may use in redistricting."

Last December, the bureau announced it was formally collecting feedback from state redistricting officials on the type of demographic information needed to redraw voting districts after the 2020 census.

"If those stakeholders indicate a need for tabulations of citizenship data on the 2020 Census Public Law 94-171 Redistricting Data File, the Census Bureau will make a design change to include citizenship as part of that data," the bureau said in a Federal Register notice.

It turns out that not a single stakeholder told the Census Bureau there was a need to include citizenship information in the redistricting data, the bureau announced this week in a regulatory document filed with the White House's Office of Management and Budget.

But the bureau is still planning to release citizenship information, separate from the redistricting data file, by March 2021.

The announcement raises questions about exactly why Trump administration officials have cited state redistricting as a reason to push for the release of citizenship data that are more detailed than the estimates from the bureau's American Community Survey.

Before he died, GOP redistricting strategist Thomas Hofeller concluded in an unpublished study that detailed citizenship information could allow for the redrawing of voting districts that would be "advantageous to Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites." Trump administration attorneys, however, have argued that Hofeller played "little, if any, role in advocating for a citizenship question" that would have produced detailed citizenship data.

Still, President Trump has emphasized the potential implications of this data on state redistricting. Through an executive order released in July, Trump directed all federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration, to share their citizenship records with the Commerce Department.

"I understand that some State officials are interested in such data for districting purposes," Trump said in the executive order on collecting citizenship information. "This order will assist the [Commerce] Department in securing the most accurate and complete citizenship data so that it can respond to such requests from the States."

The White House has not responded to NPR's questions about which state officials the president was referring to in the executive order.

The Commerce Department's Office of Public Affairs has also not responded to NPR's questions about Ross' decision to order the data produced.

One notable reason for citizenship data that is not mentioned in the executive order is enforcing the Voting Rights Act protections against the discrimination of racial and language minorities. Throughout the legal battle over the now-blocked citizenship question, the administration used that civil rights-era law as its stated motivation — a rationale that federal courts rejected, with one judge calling it a "sham justification."

The order does reference a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Evenwel v. Abbott that left unresolved whether it is legal for states to redraw legislative districts based on the number of eligible voters in an area rather than all residents.

"We need not and do not resolve whether, as Texas now argues, States may draw districts to equalize voter-eligible population rather than total population," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote on behalf of the court majority.

That decision set up this issue for a future Supreme Court fight, and the Trump administration's efforts around citizenship data have helped pave the path to a potential political battle.

The bureau's chief scientist, John Abowd, recently announced that by next March the bureau plans to finalize how it will release the citizenship data in 2021.

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