How a citizenship question on the 2020 Census could diminish Miami’s political clout

The Department of Justice wants the U.S. Census Bureau to ask people about their citizenship status on the 2020 census, and the additional questioning could lead to an undercount in immigrant-heavy Miami.

Undercounting the number of people living in Florida’s most populous county could affect how billions of federal dollars are distributed and diminish the state’s clout in the nation’s capital. The Census Bureau will choose whether or not to include the citizenship status question by March 31, when it finalizes the 2020 questionnaire.

“The purpose of the census is simple: collecting appropriate data on the people that reside in our communities so that we can distribute federal resources for the needs of the population,” Miami Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement. “Any question, including one regarding citizenship, that could in any way discourage an accurate count, must be omitted. The census is not a means to do an immigration head count. It is a means to help all of our constituents with their needs regardless of their immigration status.”

The Justice Department argued that including the citizenship status question would help it enforce the Voting Rights Act, according to a letter from the DOJ to the Census Bureau obtained by ProPublica.

The census, conducted every 10 years, is used to determine how many people are living in a given area, and the federal government attempts to count everyone regardless of their citizenship status, including undocumented immigrants. If more people are counted in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, home to approximately 450,000 undocumented immigrants, there’s a better chance that more federal dollars for infrastructure projects or programs will come South Florida’s way.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said he hasn’t decided whether it’s a good idea for the census to ask about citizenship status.

“I want to understand both arguments on it more clearly before I reach a firm opinion on it,” Rubio said.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, said he’s concerned some people could be dissuaded from answering the census if the citizenship question is asked.

“Unless I am provided with compelling statistics and facts as to why it is necessary, I would oppose its inclusion,” Diaz-Balart said in a statement.

And there’s also the looming reallocation of congressional seats due to population changes that occurs every 10 years after the census, called redistricting.

Florida is one of the country’s fastest growing states; it gained two seats in Congress and two additional Electoral College votes for the 2012 election after the 2010 Census. Current growth rates put Florida on the edge of receiving either one or two additional seats after 2020, meaning a census undercount could lead to Florida gaining one seat instead of two and one Electoral College vote instead of two for the 2022 elections.

Reallocating congressional seats is “entirely determined by total population at the time of the census and calculated based on the April 2020 head count,” said Rebecca Tippett, the director of a demographic consulting service at the University of North Carolina that analyzes demographic and economic data.

“That is why getting participation in the census matters. It’s a one-time shot,” Tippett said. “We know that certain populations are harder to count. The big problem in 2010 was an undercount of young children.”

An undercount, even by 10,000 people or less, can have large effects on how congressional seats are allocated. Utah sued the federal government in 2001 after the state missed out on adding a congressional seat by 856 people during the 2000 Census. Utah argued that the census wrongly didn’t count more than 11,000 Mormon missionaries serving abroad. Utah’s lawsuit ultimately failed.

The reapportionment fight “can be really nitty-gritty because what’s on the line is power and money,” Tippett said.

And the population count has political effects beyond determining how many congressional seats are doled out to Florida, Tippett said. State legislative boundaries and congressional district boundaries are drawn so that districts have nearly equal populations. So if Miami-Dade is undercounted compared to the Florida Panhandle, the rural area of the state will receive more relative representation in Tallahassee and Washington than urban South Florida.

The Justice Department laid out its arguments for including the citizenship status question in a December 2017 letter to the Census Bureau obtained by investigative news outlet ProPublica. The DOJ argued that citizenship data is “critical to the Department’s enforcement of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and its important protections against racial discrimination in voting.”

Currently, the Census Bureau asks for citizenship status on the American Community Survey, a more detailed mandatory questionnaire sent out to about 3.5 million households a year. The Department of Justice argued that the ACS citizenship data doesn’t provide enough detailed information about registered voters and therefore makes it harder to determine whether minority voters are being adequately represented when congressional districts are drawn.

Tippett said the counts conducted in 2000 and 2010 “had very good coverage” but cuts to census funding since 2010, before President Donald Trump took office, have left the Census Bureau unable to conduct enough tests prior to the 2020 census to ensure an accurate count. She said adding the citizenship question would require a lengthy testing and review process that will cost millions of dollars.

“Basically everyone’s a stakeholder in the census,” Tippett said. “It’s just such an important element of how we run everything right now, so many things that we rely on are based on the census. It’s really hard to overstate the importance of the accuracy of the census.”