New Evidence Exposes Trump Administration Lies on Motive for 2020 Census Citizenship Question

Interview with Dan Vicuña, national redistricting manager with Common Cause, conducted by Scott Harris

Since 2017, the Trump administration has been pushing to include a question on citizenship in the 2020 Census, claiming that its inclusion would help them better enforce the Voting Rights Act. But now new evidence has emerged that a Republican Party gerrymandering strategist had proposed the citizenship question because he determined it “would clearly be a disadvantage to the Democrats” and “advantageous to Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites.”

The strategist, Tom Hofeller, who died last year, left behind documents on computer hard drives directly related to his proposal to include the citizenship question, which were discovered by his estranged daughter and later introduced into evidence in a lawsuit challenging gerrymandered North Carolina state legislative districts drafted by Hofeller.

Since being proposed, opponents have maintained that inclusion of the citizenship question would discourage many undocumented immigrants and their families from participating in the Census, which would result in a population undercount nationwide, estimated to total between 4 million and 6 million. A case challenging the citizenship question is currently before the U.S. Supreme Court, and the new evidence significantly contradicts the Trump administration’s testimony in that case.  Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Dan Vicuna, national redistricting manager with Common Cause, who describes the importance of the newly discovered “smoking gun” evidence and how it may affect the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Census Citizenship Question case.

Dan Vicuña: Common Cause is the plaintiff in a couple of different lawsuits challenging partisan gerrymandering. One was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court challenging North Carolina congressional districts. We’re awaiting a decision on that which has huge implications for the question of whether partisan gerrymandering is constitutional. However, we’re also the plaintiffs in a state lawsuit in state court, challenging North Carolina state legislative districts as a violation of the North Carolina Constitution. That still has been in the discovery stage where we’re gathering evidence, interviewing potential witnesses, taking depositions and it’ll go to trial next month. And in the process of sort of discovery for that trial, we came in contact with Stephanie Hofeller, the daughter of a now- deceased man named Thomas Hofeller who really was a top-level practitioner of the dark arts of gerrymandering for Republicans around the country. She was calling about a different matter just because Common Cause is of sort of a trusted organization, wanted to have some questions about legal representation in some other matters and thought we might have some insight.

But in a back and forth discussion with one of our staffers in North Carolina, she mentioned that she had what sounded like sort of a treasure trove of her father’s documents related to that work, gerrymandering across the country. So she was willing to give those to us to see if we could uncover some information about how districts were manipulated across the country. And in sorting through that evidence, We came across something we didn’t expect, which was not only related to the gerrymandering of North Carolina’s maps directly, but also related to his role in the inclusion of the citizenship question in the census. And what we determined was that he was asked to do a study on who would benefit if the citizenship question was added – whether that would benefit Republicans.

The study was paid for by a conservative mega donor. And he found that in fact, adding such a question would therefore allow states to draw districts not on the basis of total population, which has been the way that the Constitution demands, the way that it’s been done since the beginning of the republic. But instead to limit the count to just citizens, which would of course have a huge impact on how different communities in states are counted. He showed that it would, as he put it, create a structural extra-advantage for, as he put it, “Republicans and non-Hispanic whites.” That logic ended up in front of basically, through a Trump administration official that Hoffler was in contact with. That logic, that argument made its way to the Department of Justice, the Trump administration Department of Justice, which then requested the inclusion of a citizenship question to the Commerce Department.

Now all along, the Department of Justice, the Trump administration, has been making the laughable claim that their goal in including the citizenship question was to better enforce the Voting Rights Act. If there’s been an administration more hostile to people of color in the modern era, it would be hard to find. So the notion that they would be using this question to help people of color more effectively exercise their right to vote is ridiculous. But however, you know, we sort of intuitively knew that as a voting rights community. But this is the first time we see a direct line from a study showing that a citizenship question would hurt Latino communities, help whites and Republicans to its actual inclusion by the Commerce Department.

Between The Lines: Tell us a bit about how this could affect the Supreme Court decision, which is pending right now. I believe a Supreme Court decision is expected by the end of June after they heard arguments in April. What is your best guess as to the justices considering this new evidence in the ruling that they will likely make in a few weeks?

Dan Vicuña: It’s hard to say. So you’re right that there’s currently a decision pending in this case brought by the ACLU and the state of New York. At the trial court, the plaintiffs challenging inclusion of the citizenship question won on all counts. The trial court issued a clear opinion that this was wrong and that the federal government broke the law in inclusion of this question. But however, the Supreme Court, at least in initial oral arguments, it seemed like some of the conservative justices were very amenable to the government’s position. In fact, I think the chief justice may have even repeated the claim about Trump administration’s sort of argument that they needed to include the question to better enforce the Voting Rights Act.

The plaintiffs filed a motion with the Supreme Court, alerting them to this new evidence. It is late in the term. It’s late, but hopefully not too late. I mean, it would be sort of a willful blindness to not look at this “smoking gun” evidence that the government was just not telling the truth about why they were including this question. So I’m hoping despite this late date that it can have some impact on one or two votes on the Supreme Court. It just seems too difficult to ignore.

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