Will The “C” Question Destroy The Democratic Party?

Tony Quinn
Editor, California Target Book

A simple request from the Trump Justice Department to the Census Bureau to add a single question to the 2020 federal census is causing a huge uproar among liberal and Democratic groups because it could have a devastating political impact for Democrats in the next decade.  This is the “C” question: are you a citizen or not.

Democrats oppose adding this question to the census because they suspect, with good reason, that non-citizens, especially illegal alien non-citizens, will simply refuse to be counted in the census rather than reveal their citizenship status.

This may also be a problem for legal immigrants, those in the United States on a visa or green card, because people do overstay their visas; a large percentage of the illegal population in America came in legally and has simply overstayed their visa.  So the fear of Democratic and liberal groups is probably very well founded; certain few illegal persons are going to want to admit it on a census form and many legal immigrants may skip the census as well.

If millions of non-citizens refuse to participate in the US Census, the Democrats will take massive political beating.  That’s because electoral districts must be drawn based on population.  The non-citizen population resides in heavily Democratic areas; if they are not counted, those areas will not have sufficient population to support Democratic congressional and legislative districts, especially in the big cities.  Democrats could lose dozens of districts just due to too few people being counted.

But despite this political impact, Democrats have almost no arguments against adding the citizenship question, and the Trump Administration can easily add the question to census forms.  Arguments against it are weakened because citizenship was asked on census forms throughout much of American history.

The United States has conducted a federal census every 10 years since 1790, longer than any other nation in the world.  We have done this in order to determine the nation’s population, and to apportion seats in the House of Representatives.

Early in our history the census began asking a whether the individual being enumerated was born in the United States.  After the Civil War, with the huge boom in European migration, the census asked whether the person was a citizen eligible to vote.  Beginning in 1880, the census asked the place of birth not only of the enumerated person but of the parents as well.

With the 1890 census the question was asked: are you a naturalized citizen or not.  The year of immigration of a foreign born person as well as the year of naturalization (if naturalized) was asked in the 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930, 1940 and 1950 censuses, in other words for the first half of the 20th Century.

However, in 1960 the question was dropped and the Census Bureau explained why: the great migration had long since ended; very few non-citizens lived in the United States so the question was no longer relevant.

But the census still does ask this question in a different way. Over the past decade the Census Bureau has conducted the American Community Survey.  It is a small sample census used to delve more deeply into the American population.  It asks three citizenship related questions: where was this person born; is this person a United States citizen; and if foreign born when did this person come to live in the United States.  The ACS survey does not ask whether the person is here legally.

This survey is used to determine what’s called CVAP – citizen voting age population, which is required to determine whether majority minority electoral districts need be drawn.

The Trump Administration is arguing that the ACS is insufficient to determine CVAP, thus every person must be asked whether they are a citizen or not.

The census asked about citizenship during the great migrations of the 19th and 20th Centuries because the government had a legitimate reason to want to know where people came from.  We now have a large immigrant population, some of whom are legal and some of whom are not.  Certainly it is legitimate to want to determine who this population is.

The Democratic Party has wanted to blur differences between citizens and non-citizens with things like sanctuary cities and drivers licenses for illegal immigrants.  But the citizenship question will, as it did in the past, shed light on just who is here legally and who is not.  Count on a bitter fight from Democrats and liberals to keep this question off the 2020 census forms.

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