The Trump administration’s effort to include a citizenship question on the 2020 census — an addition that experts warned would likely depress the response rate and lead to an undercount in minority communities — involved officials from multiple agencies and multiple levels of government. Although the administration claimed asking respondents their citizenship status was necessary to enforce the Voting Rights Act, document releases and public reporting revealed the political motivations behind the question, which was ultimately blocked by the Supreme Court in June 2019.
During congressional testimony in early 2018, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross had claimed that the Justice Department had requested that his department, which includes the Census Bureau, include the citizenship question. But documents released later that summer in a multistate lawsuit against the administration revealed that Ross himself had actively pushed for it. Then in May 2019, the New York Times reported on a shocking trove of emails from the late Thomas Hofeller, a Republican strategist who had left behind evidence of the partisan motivations behind adding a citizenship question.
Litigation over the question also revealed that anti-immigration hardliner Kris Kobach, the former Kansas secretary of state, had emailed Ross on July 14, 2017, with suggested wording for the question. We obtained the calendars of Israel Hernandez, then senior adviser and deputy chief of staff at Commerce, which showed on that same day the note “ALERT: Census Document Incoming.”
Additionally, the calendars of Lisa Casias, the Commerce Department’s deputy assistant secretary for administration, show that she and Census Bureau official Laura Furgione had a discussion about the census on May 25, 2017 — the day after Commerce official David Langdon sent an email to Census officials saying Ross was “puzzled why citizenship is not included in 2020.”
The Trump administration’s attempts to use the constitutionally authorized decennial census for political and partisan purposes were deeply troubling. American Oversight filed several Freedom of Information Act requests to shed more light on these efforts, and sued for records related to the Justice Department’s involvement and for the emails of former Justice Department official John Gore, who provided the official letter to the Census Bureau with the administration’s stated legal reason for adding the question. Gore is among the officials facing allegations of providing false or misleading statements during the course of litigation over the question.
American Oversight has also filed requests for records regarding misleading documents formatted to look like official census forms that were sent by the Republican National Committee to people across the United States. The documents included a lengthy questionnaire, and former President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign even sent text messages to some recipients urging them to fill out the form.