Top Census Scientist Foresees Chill From Census Shakeup

MANHATTAN (CN) – Over two grueling days on the witness stand, the Census Bureau’s chief scientist testified that the addition of a citizenship question to the once-in-a-decade survey would be expensive, while also compromising data and response rates.

“I support the conclusion that there would be a lower self-response rate and the consequences of that self-response rate, yes,” statistician John Abowd said Tuesday in court.

Fewer people filling out the survey would force the Census Bureau to intensify efforts to send employees to households across the United States to validate the count. Abowd predicted that on-the-ground outreach and a public-relations campaign would cost taxpayers at least $27.5 million, a number he called a “lower-bound estimate.”

Hispanic participants in Census Bureau testing reported suspicion about the Trump administration’s intentions with the citizenship question, which has not been a part of the decennial survey since 1950.

“Latinos will not participate out of fear,” one participant said. “There’s a hunt for us. … It’s like giving the government information: ‘Oh, there are more here.'”

Abowd agreed that this would lead to lower-quality data.

“That’s a bad thing, right?” asked Dale Ho, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union.

“That’s something we try to avoid, yes,” Abowd replied.

Returning to the stand Wednesday, Abowd backtracked only slightly from this prognosis. The scientist affirmed that fewer people would fill out the surveys, but he stopping short of predicting that the government would not find ways to mitigate the problem.

Commerce Department Secretary Wilbur Ross met with Abowd only once before deciding to add the citizenship question, and Abowd said he overruled the bureau’s recommendation to shelve it.

Earlier this year, Ross testified to Congress that the Department of Justice requested the citizenship question to accrue data that would help enforce the Voting Rights Act, but acting Assisting Attorney General John Gore undermined that position during a taped deposition.

“My understanding was those conversations were initiated by the Department of Commerce,” Gore said in October.

After this footage was played in court, Abowd said that he was “surprised” by that revelation.

Ho asked the scientist whether he had been under the impression that his expertise mattered to Ross.

Appearing emotionally taken aback, Abowd paused before responding: “I was under the impression that it mattered within the context of the 2020 census.”

Ho’s pugnacious line of questioning highlighted the fact that Abowd had been called as an adverse witness to those challenging the citizenship question as an unconstitutional attempt to chill participation by immigrants of color.

Despite criticizing the citizenship question, Abowd stopped short of finding “credible quantitative evidence” that its addition would result in a net undercount in the 2020 census. He added that outreach efforts – known as nonresponse follow-up, or NRFU – could potentially make up for the depressed totals of self-reporting.

The 18 attorneys general and five civil rights groups behind the lawsuit argue that this data does not exist only because the government sidestepped the normal testing procedures, in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act.

Department of Justice attorney Stephen Ehrlich tried to elicit testimony from Abowd that the Census Bureau is planning randomized control tests.

“Yes, your honor, there is one,” Abowd said, referring to the tests.

Ho objected to the testimony because the government stonewalled information about this testing requested before trial.

“This strikes me as a blatant violation of the government’s discovery obligations,” said U.S. District Jesse Furman, who is presiding over the case. No jury has been seated, and Furman has not yet ruled whether to strike the evidence about the upcoming tests.

Abowd’s testimony will continue through at least Wednesday afternoon, and the government will begin to call their witnesses after it concludes.

Closing arguments are scheduled to take place on Nov. 27, the Tuesday after the Thanksgiving weekend.

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