Don’t Undermine the 2020 Census

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Sometime in the next several weeks, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide a question crucial to the nation’s future: whether to allow the Trump administration to bungle the 2020 Census. An affirmative vote would be a sad defeat for good government.

The once-in-a-decade count of the U.S. population was already at risk when President Trump took office in 2017. Underfunded and lacking a director, the Census Bureau was struggling to prepare innovations such as online questionnaires, a smartphone app and aerial mapping in time for 2020. This was a big problem, because imprecision would have long-lasting repercussions. The census helps determine how many representatives each state sends to Congress and how hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funds are distributed. It also underpins the accuracy of other crucial government data.

Instead of fixing the problem, though, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross made it worse: He demanded that the census include a question on citizenship for the first time in 70 years.

On practical grounds alone, this was a bad idea. For one, it wouldn’t achieve his purported aim of helping the Justice Department enforce the 1965 Voting Rights Act. As Census officials immediately made clear, existing data — for example, from the annual American Community Survey — are amply suited to provide estimates of eligible voters and ensure that all citizens are getting their fair say. Worse, it would complicate the difficult task of counting immigrant and minority families who are already wary of participating. By one estimate, adding the question would cause the census to miss about 6 million Hispanics.

That’s not all. In a book-length opinion, a U.S. district judge has concluded that the change is unlawful. The law gives the commerce secretary, who oversees the census, broad discretion in deciding what to ask — as long as those decisions are reasonable and reasonably explained. Yet Ross offered no good rationale for adding a census question when less costly and more effective means were available. His stated purpose does not stand up to scrutiny, the court found, and he ignored evidence that the change, particularly so late in the game, would undermine the census.

As the judge put it, this amounts to a “veritable smorgasbord” of violations of the Administrative Procedure Act, which was designed to ensure that the executive branch doesn’t overstep its authority. For practical as well as legal reasons, it’s to be hoped that the Supreme Court agrees.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

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