Citizenship Q | theSkimm

Citizenship Q

Published on: Jun 13, 2019fb-roundtwitter-roundemail-round

Everyone’s waiting to hear how the Supremes weigh in on a census question.

US census
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The Story

The US census goes down once a decade. The next one, in 2020, is caught in political crosshairs.

The Background

The census dates back to the 1700s, when the Founding Fathers wanted to get a headcount of everyone in the US. 


Democracy. It was to figure out how to distribute House reps among the states. The more people in your state, the more House reps your state gets. The Constitution requires an updated count every decade. The first census in 1790 was just six questions. It involved people (called “enumerators” if you want to get fancy) going house to house and asking things like how many white people and slaves lived there. 

Well that was a #TBT I didn’t need.

Right. As the country has changed and the population grown, the questions have gotten some edits. For example, in 1940 the gov asked people about their jobs and whether they owned or rented their homes to get a sense of the impact of the Great Depression. 

Ok ok. 

Also important to note that beyond House reps, census data is used to draw voting districts and determine how federal funding is distributed for things like schools, roads, and other public services.

The Big Issue

The reason we’re talking about this right now: the Trump administration wants to add a citizenship question to next year’s census. The admin says this will help it enforce the Voting Rights Act, which was passed in the ‘60s to protect minorities’ voting rights.

More specifics please.

Among other things, the Act requires the gov to get a tally of citizens of voting age across the US. That way, the Justice Department can take legal action against what may be discriminatory election practices. See: this case. The Trump admin says that more accurate data about who’s eligible to vote in the US would help the gov make sure minorities’ voting rights are protected. 

Why would anyone have an issue with that?

A couple reasons. 

  1. Critics say a citizenship question will scare minority and immigrant households into not answering the census at all, leading to an undercount of people living in the US. The Census Bureau has also warned that the question could hurt the accuracy of the census.

  2. While the Trump admin says it’s adding the question to enforce the Voting Rights Act, evidence shows that may not be the whole story. And that the question may give Republicans an electoral advantage. We get into that here:

Dozens of states, cities, and other groups sued the admin and three federal judges told the gov ‘no can do,’ arguing that the admin didn’t provide a good enough reason for adding the question. The Trump admin appealed to the Supreme Court, and here we are. 

Meanwhile, Congress has been trying to get to the bottom of why the Trump admin wants this question on the census. We get into that fight in Skimm This:

What exactly are the Supremes deciding?

Whether the question violates the constitution’s requirement that the gov get a count of every person (not just citizens) in the US. And whether the admin has provided a reasonable explanation for adding the question. Based on how oral arguments went, it looks like the conservative-leaning court may side with the Trump admin.

Wait, has a citizenship question ever been asked before?

Yes. A citizenship question (think: asking where someone was born, if they’re naturalized) was included on every census between 1890 and 1950. Currently, the government gets citizenship data from the American Community Survey, which is done every year but only goes out to a small number of US households. The Trump admin wants to get straight to the point on the next census and ask, “Is this person a citizen of the United States?” If the question is added next year, it’ll be the first time the census directly asks for citizenship status of every person in every household.

The Debate

Some say, others say

The Impact

If the court rules in favor of adding a citizenship question, it could impact everything from how many House reps a state gets in Congress to how much federal funding it gets for things like schools. States like Texas and California with large immigrant populations could be especially impacted. States could also use the new census info to redraw electoral districts using the citizen population number instead of the total population.


The census is a huge undertaking. One that delivers a treasure trove of info about the makeup of the country at different points throughout history, impacts daily life in America, and affects how the most important issues in your state are repped in Congress. The question before the Supreme Court could alter all three of these things for years to come.

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