U.S. President Donald Trump, sits and listens during a lunch meeting with Republican lawmakers in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S. (Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg)

Trump Prepares to Bungle the 2020 Census

(The Bloomberg View) -- Experts have long been warning that the U.S. government might soon fail at one of its most fundamental responsibilities: conducting an accurate census of the population. Increasingly, that looks to be precisely what the Trump administration wants to do — by adding a last-minute question that doesn’t need to be asked.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of getting the 2020 census right. Its primary purpose is to count everyone in the country and ascertain where they live. The result decides how many representatives each state sends to Congress, how trillions of dollars in federal funds are allocated, and where companies such as Walmart and Amazon put new stores and warehouses. It also forms the statistical foundation that ensures the accuracy of all other government surveys, from the annual American Community Survey to the monthly jobs report.

The latest count was already in trouble when Trump took office last year. The Census Bureau was struggling to manage a number of innovations — including online questionnaires, a smartphone app and aerial mapping — even as Congress refused to provide funds for the necessary field tests. Ultimately, it had to make do with just one test in Providence County, Rhode Island. With 2020 just 17 months away, the bureau still lacks a director and is running behind on the crucial advertising campaign.

Given the challenges, the Trump administration should be laser-focused on making things go as smoothly as possible. Instead, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has added a big complication: He wants to include a question on citizenship, on the grounds that the Justice Department needs the data to ensure that all Americans are getting their fair say under the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The motivation might be noble if it were the slightest bit necessary. It’s not. True, to enforce the VRA, Justice needs to know how many citizens of various races are eligible to vote. But the American Community Survey already provides that information, using sampling methods that serve the purpose better than the decennial census would. The block-level data that Ross wants would provide no added insight: It’s scrambled to protect people’s privacy, and prone to errors that wash out at higher levels of aggregation.

Worse, Ross’s plan could actually do damage. One of the greatest challenges in 2020 will be reaching immigrant and minority families, whom the Trump administration’s antagonism has made more wary of dealing with the government. Adding a question on citizenship all but guarantees that many will not be counted. This would in turn undermine the accuracy of the ACS and all other government surveys. At the very least, the effect should be tested — but there’s neither time nor money for that now.

The one thing that Ross’s proposal is highly likely to achieve is an undercount of traditionally Democratic states, which would in turn reduce their representation in Congress. It’s terrible to think that an administration would risk the probity of the census to such ends. But given the lack of any other plausible explanation, and given the recently released email correspondence between Ross and former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, it’s hard not to draw that conclusion.

A group of 17 state attorneys general has challenged Ross’s plan in federal court, arguing that it's “arbitrary and capricious” and violates the constitutional mandate to conduct an “actual enumeration” of the population. The evidence suggests they’re right. For the sake of all the institutions and businesses that rely on unbiased government data, one must hope their argument prevails.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg View editorial board.

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