Citizenship Question Would Not Have Lowered Census Response, Test Finds

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A test the Census Bureau conducted this summer found that people who were asked whether or not they are U.S. citizens were not significantly deterred from answering the survey.

U.S. residents were not significantly deterred from completing census questionnaires when the forms contained a controversial question about citizenship, the Census Bureau said Thursday in the release of preliminary results from a nationwide test conducted this summer.

The Trump administration sought unsuccessfully to include the question on the 2020 census, which prompted lawsuits by states and cities who argued they risked losing federal funding if immigrant-heavy communities did not participate and were undercounted.

In preparation for the decennial count, the Census Bureau sent test forms to 480,000 households across the United States. Some of the forms asked whether respondents were U.S. citizens, while others did not.

The test found that households were slightly more likely to respond to the census when they received questionnaires that did not include the citizenship question, with 52% submitting responses over a two-month period. The response rate for households that received forms with the citizenship question was 51.5%.

“The major finding of the test was that there was no difference in self-response rates between forms with and forms without a citizenship question,” the Census Bureau wrote in a blog post Thursday. “The preliminary analysis suggests that in some areas and for some subgroups, there were lower self-response rates for the test form with the citizenship question than the test form without the citizenship question.”

As part of the 2019 test, households were sent initial mailings on June 13, and received up to four additional mailings if they did not respond. No follow up was conducted for households that did not respond by Aug. 15.

The Census Bureau said it does not plan to change its communications campaign strategy as a result of the tests and it believes that its current staffing plan to follow up with non-responsive households “would have sufficiently accounted for subgroup differences seen in this test.”

Advocacy organizations and state attorneys general had pushed back against the Trump administration’s plans to include the citizenship question, arguing it would reduce participation by immigrant families and, therefore, result in an inaccurate count that would shortchange communities with large immigrant populations. Billions of federal dollars are allotted to the states based on census counts. The census results also guide the congressional representation and Electoral College votes afforded to each state.

The last year the citizenship question was included on all U.S. census questionnaires mailed to households across the United States was 1950. 

The Trump administration sought to include it again saying the data would enable the Justice Department to better enforce the Voting Rights Act, which protects minority voters.

The test census forms were mailed out in June, amid the height of controversy over the citizenship question.

The Supreme Court that same month rejected the Trump administration’s justification for including the citizenship question on the 2020 census, calling it “contrived.”

The decision did not preclude the administration from asking whether or not residents were U.S. citizens, but due to the timing of the ruling it left in doubt whether the question would be included on the then-yet-to-be-printed census forms.

President Trump later announced that he would no longer seek to include the question on the census and would instead order a sweeping analysis of federal government records to determine the number of non-citizens living in the country.

Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent for Route Fifty.

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