Ross Accused of Twisting Expert’s View on Citizenship Question

(Bloomberg) -- Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross was accused of distorting a conversation with a Nielsen Co. executive to back the Trump administration’s view that adding a question about citizenship to the 2020 census wouldn’t cut the response rate of immigrants and noncitizens.

The executive, Christine Pierce, said Ross’s March 26 memorandum announcing the addition of the question for the first time in 70 years mischaracterized views she shared with him during a 20-minute phone call he’d requested three days earlier. That’s according to a filing Tuesday in federal court in Manhattan, where dozens of states and cities have sued to prevent the planned question from being added to the census.

“I told Secretary Ross unequivocally that I was concerned that a citizenship question would negatively impact self-response rates,” Pierce, Nielsen’s senior vice president of data science, said in an Oct. 25 affidavit filed by New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood. “I explained that people are less likely to respond to a survey that contains sensitive questions.”

The question, which hasn’t appeared on the once-a-decade survey since 1950, reads, “Is this person a citizen of the United States?”

Ross, whose department oversees the Census Bureau, said in his memo that Pierce agreed there was no empirical evidence to suggest that such a question would damp response rates. He said Pierce told him that Nielsen’s surveys incorporate citizenship data from the bureau’s annual American Community Survey, which is separate from the census.

“In discussing the question with the national survey agency Nielsen, it stated that it had added questions from the ACS on sensitive topics such as place of birth and immigration status to certain short survey forms without any appreciable decrease in response rates,” Ross said in the memo.

Ross Accused of Twisting Expert’s View on Citizenship Question

But Pierce said in her affidavit that she told Ross extensive testing would be required to determine the impact of the question on the far more comprehensive and important decennial census and that the bureau had done no such testing. She said she didn’t tell Ross he could draw parallels between Nielsen’s surveys and the census.

“The Pierce affidavit actually confirms the accuracy of statements Secretary Ross made in his memo reinstating the Citizenship Question on the 2020 Census; media distortions to the contrary are flatly false,” a Commerce Department spokesman said. “The affidavit --produced on the eve of trial -- is another attempt by plaintiffs to try their distorted case in the media, rather than in court, where facts ought to matter.”

The plaintiffs have previously accused Ross of distorting facts. Before the trial began, he changed his claim that he decided to add the question only after the Justice Department requested it to help enforce the Voting Rights Act, after the states found contrary evidence.

The plaintiffs claim President Donald Trump’s administration is adding the question to scare immigrants away from participating in the census to dilute their political power. The idea is that, with the president’s rhetoric about immigrants in the air, people approached by census takers may worry the data could be used by federal immigration agents to target them or someone in their household, even if they are in the U.S. legally.

The U.S. says that claim is built on “unrelated innuendos” and that the question will improve the accuracy of the census, allowing the government to better enforce the voting rights law. The plaintiffs say Ross added the voting rights explanation as a pretext to justify a discriminatory policy change. The Census Bureau has other, already tested methods of gathering citizenship information to help the government enforce the law.

The trial, which coincided with Tuesday’s momentous midterm election, could help rewrite the nation’s political map for a decade or more. Census results are used to apportion U.S. congressional seats and divvy up the Electoral College votes that determine the winners of presidential elections. The data are also used to distribute hundreds of billions of dollars a year in federal aid to states and localities.

U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman, an appointee of former president Barack Obama, is overseeing the two-week trial without a jury. The outcome could give either Democrats or Republicans an edge as soon as 2021 and through at least 2031, just after the next decennial census. Given the stakes, an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court is all but inevitable.

The case is State of New York v. U.S. Department of Commerce, 18-cv-2921, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).

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