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Why The U.S. Counts People Without Documentation For Congressional Districts


Let's look now at the consequences of President Trump's Rose Garden announcement about the census. He says he won't keep pushing for a citizenship question on the 2020 census. Instead, he'll get the information from other parts of the federal government.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: As a result of today's executive order, we will be able to ensure the 2020 census generates an accurate count of how many citizens, non-citizens and illegal aliens are in the United States of America - not too much to ask.

SHAPIRO: Groups that oppose the census question say this executive order is a bad idea, too. That includes Michael Li, senior counsel for the Brennan Center's Democracy Program. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

MICHAEL LI: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: Will you begin by just explaining how this would work?

LI: Well, what the Census Bureau has said that it can do is it can use records from other parts of the government - say, the Social Security Administration or Homeland Security - and use those records to figure out whether people who answered the census are citizens or not. And so it's said that for a long time. It said that at the beginning of these cases over the citizenship question, and it said that that would be a better, cheaper and more reliable way of figuring out who is and is not a citizen without the consequences of depressing participation in the light.

SHAPIRO: And if that information reaches the Commerce Department as intended, and it's accurate, what could that mean for congressional representation and federal money that goes to the states?

LI: Well, the biggest consequence that I think people are concerned about is the potential that the data would be used in redrawing district boundaries, both legislative and potentially congressional district boundaries, which happens after the census. Some people have wanted for a long time to draw districts not to equalize all of the people - total population - but instead to equalize the number of eligible voters or the number of citizens in districts. They haven't had the data to be able to do that reliably. This may enable them, if it's released and proven to be reliable enough, to be able to do that.

SHAPIRO: What's wrong with excluding people who are undocumented and therefore not allowed to vote from those congressional districts? I mean, why shouldn't that be a factor in drawing congressional boundaries?

LI: Well, the key thing to remember is the data that the Census Bureau is proposing to provide is about whether you are a citizen or not. And, you know, the largest group of non-citizens are actually legally in the United States. They just aren't citizens yet because they, you know, haven't been here long enough or are in the process of applying. And so, you know, it's only a relatively small segment of the population that actually is undocumented.

But getting to the question that you ask about why we should count people who aren't citizens for purposes of drawing districts is that representation and voting have always been different things. At the time of the country's founding, in fact, most adult white men couldn't vote because of property restrictions and the like, and yet they were clearly entitled to representation. Women couldn't vote until the 1920s, and yet they were entitled to representation. And we've always thought that people have the right to petition their government for redress of grievances, to participate in town halls, to, you know, otherwise show up at meetings.

And so representation and voting are very different things and perhaps best evidenced by the rallying cry of the revolution, which was no taxation without representation.

SHAPIRO: Do you expect to see legal challenges to this executive order as we saw with the effort to get this question on the 2020 census?

LI: I'm not sure that you will see legal challenges to the executive order. You may see legal challenges to the use of any citizenship data that the Census Bureau provides to states for redistricting, for example. So if some states decide to, for example, draw districts to have equal numbers of eligible voters, that will be the subject of a legal challenge that we expect will go up to the Supreme Court.

SHAPIRO: Are you confident that this information, if provided to the Commerce Department by Homeland Security and others, would actually be complete and accurate?

LI: Well, we know that the Census Bureau has said that it will be better and more reliable. But better and more reliable doesn't mean necessarily reliable enough at the block level that you need to draw districts, right? And so I think a lot of people are a little bit wary and ready to look more closely at what might be provided.

SHAPIRO: Michael Li, senior counsel for the Brennan Center's Democracy Program, thanks again.

LI: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.