In part one of a recent saga starring the Trump administration and the U.S. Census Bureau, Department of Commerce and Supreme Court, I introduced you to Roanokers Elizabeth Bailes and Grant Smith.
The married seniors, who live in the Deyerle neighborhood, decided in mid-June to ignore a sternly worded letter from the Census Bureau directing them to complete a 20-question online survey known as the 2019 Census Test.
A chief bugaboo was a question about citizenship then being debated in federal courts. Such a query was last posed to every U.S. household in 1950.
Opponents of the question, including some of the Census Bureau’s own statisticians, warned that posing it would deter immigrants from answering, and that risked an undercount in the 2020 Census. Nevertheless, the White House insisted on reinstating the question.
It also appeared on the 2019 Census Test the bureau sent to 480,000 households last month seeking to learn how many people would refuse to answer the controversial question. That would help the bureau determine how many door knockers it needed for the actual census next year.
In part two of the saga, the U.S. Supreme Court on June 27 ruled the Trump administration’s justification for the citizenship query was “contrived” and disallowed the question. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in a 5-4 opinion that if the administration wants to ask the question, it must articulate a legitimate reason.
Meanwhile, Bailes and Smith wondered if they could be prosecuted for breaking the law by ignoring the letter directing them to take the online survey.
We have now reached Chapter 3 of “Liz and Grant’s Census Test Adventure.” There are new wrinkles to report. Let’s take those chronologically.
1. On June 28, yours truly asked the Census Bureau what penalty, if any, Bailes and Smith could face for refusing to complete the 2019 survey. I emailed that question and three others to the bureau’s public affairs office because their phone lines were down that day.
2. On July 2, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the Census Bureau, issued a statement indicating the agency would leave the citizenship question off 2020 Census forms being sent to the printers.
3. On July 3, President Trump declared exactly the opposite in this tweet: “The News Reports about the Department of Commerce dropping its quest to put the Citizenship Question on the Census is incorrect or, to state it differently, FAKE! We are absolutely moving forward, as we must, because of the importance of the answer to this question.”
Later that day, the Justice Department said it still was looking for ways to justify the question’s inclusion on the 2020 Census.
4. On July 7, Justice Department officials installed new lawyers on the census court cases to replace the attorneys who’d been fighting the battle for months in federal district and appeals courts and the Supreme Court.
5. On July 9 and 10, federal judges in New York and Maryland, respectively, rejected the Justice Department’s bid to switch lawyers. Both judges said changing attorneys risked impeding the cases and the Justice Department offered unsatisfactory justifications for the move.
6. The morning of July 11, the Census Bureau emailed a reply to my June 28 query. “Good Morning,” the email began. “Your request has been referred to [public affairs at the Department of Commerce]. Please refer all questions to them.” I did by phone and email that day. The office has yet to reply.
7. That afternoon, President Trump said during a news conference in the Rose Garden that the administration was dropping its efforts to include the citizenship question on the 2020 Census.
Instead, Trump added, he would issue an executive order to get citizenship data via other means, including inter-agency data sharing. The breakdown on citizenship is important for a number of reasons, Trump argued. The president and Attorney General William Barr specifically cited congressional redistricting.
To date, congressional district lines have been drawn based on a count of total people, both citizens and noncitizens. If the administration seeks to change that calculus, many more court battles are in the offing.
8. On July 13 — 16 days after the Supreme Court decision that disallowed the citizenship question — the Census Bureau followed up with Bailes and Smith.
That day in the mail, the couple received a paper version of the 2019 Census Test. That document included a question about whether they are United States citizens, Bailes said.
“We have answered the questions,” Bailes texted me that day. “That said, we have decided not to draw further attention publicly to our answers by discussing how we chose to approach the Census Test.
“If this administration were more stable, perhaps we could elaborate,” she added. “As it is, this is all we can say.”