MANHATTAN (CN) – Opening a day before the U.S. midterm elections, a long-anticipated trial over the 2020 census kicked off Monday with a scholar warning that the addition of a citizenship question will discourage participation by Hispanics and noncitizens.
“The Census Bureau itself designates it as a sensitive question," testified D. Sunshine Hillygus, a professor from Duke University.
The author of the book “The Hard Count,” Hillygus spent six years in the Census Bureau before transitioning into academia. She began her testimony today with a historical view of the nation’s anxiety over the survey, which the Constitution mandates is held every 10 years to allocate federal funding and political representation.
"With a very first census, George Washington said: 'We have a census number, but we think there's an undercount,'" Hillygus said.
After Commerce Department Secretary Wilbur Ross announced that the 2020 census will feature a new citizenship question, 18 attorneys general and five civil rights groups led by New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood brought a court challenge, claiming that the change was made to depress participation from communities that traditionally vote Democratic.
Hillygus on the stand cited focus-group studies conducted by the Census Bureau’s chief scientist John Abowd, which show that Hispanics are nine times more likely than non-Hispanic whites to break off from the survey at the point of the citizenship question.
"There are reasons that I think this is too conservative an estimate," Hillygus added.
The scholar’s daylong testimony began what is expected to be a two-week bench trial before U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman, who declined to hear opening statements.
Late last month, Hillygus submitted an exhaustively footnoted 50-page report arguing against the change to the survey.
“Based on a review of the quantitative and qualitative research and evidence, the preponderance of the evidence suggests that it is highly likely that the addition of a citizenship question will exacerbate the disproportionate undercount of non-citizen households and Hispanics,” she wrote.
During cross-examination, Department of Justice attorney Martin Tomlinson intimated that Hillygus had been biased against the question from the start. She reacted to the news of its inclusion with the letters: “WTH.”
Asked whether that stood for “what the hell,” Hillygus replied that letters communicated “my shock, yes.”
"I want to say in no uncertain terms that this is an absolutely awful decision," Hillygus confirmed having said on March 19 this year at a presentation.
Part of the reason for her shock, Hillygus said, was that the Census Bureau did not conduct the randomized control testing that had been the typical process for altering the survey.
Tomlinson used the resulting lack of data to attack the basis of the Hillygus’ research.
Representing the civil rights groups suing the government, Arnold & Poerter attorney John A. Freedman questioned whether the onus for this problem had been on the bureau itself.
“Could the Census Bureau have done additional testing on the sensitivity of the question to Hispanics?” Freedman asked.
“Not only ‘could have,’” Hillygus replied. “I believe they were obligated to.”
Hillygus also warned of a risk for the census to become further “politicized,” noting that “we have an election tomorrow.”
If households do not respond to a survey, the Census Bureau officials known as enumerators participate in what is known as “nonresponse follow-up” operations.
“This is going to be occurring during a presidential election," Hillygus noted.
The first day of trial did not address allegations that Secretary Ross lied to Congress by insisting that he added the citizenship question to help the Justice Department enforce the Voting Rights Act.
In a deposition, Assistant Deputy Attorney General John Gore undermined that position by agreeing that a citizenship question was “not necessary” for that purpose.
“I do agree with that,” Gore said, according a transcript of his deposition released on Sunday.
Internal emails from the Commerce Department showed that the timeline does not match up with Ross’ congressional testimony. Months before communicating with the Justice Department, which initially resisted the idea, Ross floated a citizenship question with anti-immigration hardliners like former White House strategist Steve Bannon and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach.
Judge Furman initially ordered Ross to face deposition because of evidence of “bad faith,” but the Supreme Court temporarily blocked his testimony. It is unclear whether the New York attorney general’s office will continue to seek his testimony at trial.
Barring judicial intervention, the next census will include a citizenship question for the first time since 1950.
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