What the SCOTUS Citizenship Ruling Means for the 2020 Census

June 27, 2019

Steven Romalewski, director of the CUNY Mapping Service at the Center for Urban Research at The Graduate Center, weighs in.

census 2020

Today, the U.S. Supreme surprised many with its decision on whether the U.S. Department of Commerce can add a question about citizenship to the 2020 census. The court rejected the Trump Administration’s reason for adding the question, meaning that the administration needs to develop a new rationale for the proposed citizenship query.

The Graduate Center spoke to Steven Romalewski, director of the CUNY Mapping Service at the Center for Urban Research at The Graduate Center, about the ruling and its implications.
GC: What is the big takeaway from today’s decision?

Romalewski: The decision noted that while the commerce secretary has latitude to determine which questions are on the census, the sole reason given for a citizenship question by the Commerce department – to use the data to better enforce the Voting Rights Act – was “contrived,”that there was a “significant mismatch” between Commerce Secretary Ross’ reasoning and the decision he reached, and that his stated explanation for adding a citizenship question was “more of a distraction” than a sincere rationale.

So, hopefully, the takeaway from the Supreme Court’s decision is that the census is a serious undertaking – foundational to how our democracy operates – and that a last-minute “contrived” decision to add a citizenship question was improper and unnecessary. Because the impact of the question on the census questionnaire was untested, it easily could have caused many people to avoid filling out the census form, which would result in an inaccurate census count, undermining the reason for taking a census in the first place.
GC: Media reports have indicated that the decision about the citizenship decision needs to be resolved by June 30. What are the timelines for the census in order for the questionnaire to be printed and distributed to the public?

Romalewski: The Census bureau has indicated that if it had more resources for last-minute printing, they could wait until fall 2019 before printing the forms and instructions. Without additional funding, the bureau needs to start printing this summer. So, our assumption is the 2020 census will proceed without a citizenship question. Any delay in implementing the count would cause cascading problems, because so many government programs as well as legislative redistricting rely on decennial census data. That, plus the Constitution says a census “shall be made” every 10 years.
GC: Advocacy groups and New York State Attorney General Tish James have applauded the decision. What’s the upshot for the 2020 Census questionnaire itself?

Romalewski: The next steps are for census Complete Count Committees, business groups who rely on census data, elected officials, and other census supporters to redouble their efforts to make sure everyone understands the importance of filling out the census questionnaire to ensure a fair and accurate 2020 census.

They can use our online Hard to Count map to focus their efforts on areas at greatest risk of an undercount. And they can contact the Census Counts coalition for more information.
About the CUNY Mapping Service and the Center for Urban Research at The Graduate Center, CUNY

The CUNY Mapping Service engages with foundations, agencies, businesses, nonprofits, and researchers at The City University of New York to use spatial analysis techniques in applied research projects. The service specializes in online applications providing intuitive access to powerful data sets, displayed visually through interactive maps and other formats.

Civil rights groups and philanthropic foundations leading the effort to ensure a fair and accurate census count have asked the Mapping Service to provide online maps to help census advocates and trusted partners to focus their outreach and educational efforts. The Center for Urban Research is also an affiliate of the New York State Data Center and uses census data regularly to analyze local and regional population characteristics.