A political science professor who the Trump administration wanted for a top job at the Census Bureau said that the decision to add a question about citizenship to the 2020 census was a political one.
Thomas Brunell, a professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, told Science Magazine that the Trump administration was justified in adding the question, even if the motivations were political. Last year, the White House tapped Brunell to be deputy director of the Census Bureau, but his appointment drew controversy, and in February the Commerce Department, which oversees the bureau, said he was no longer under consideration.
“I’m agnostic on whether [the citizenship question] is needed,” Brunell told Science Magazine in an interview published Wednesday. “I think the critical point is that the administration wants to put it on there. They have made a political decision. And they have every right to do that because they won the election.”
Brunell’s comments are notable because officials at the Commerce Department and the Census Bureau have publicly insisted that the decision was not political. In a March memo justifying the decision, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said that the department would add a citizenship question after the Department of Justice requested better data to enforce the voting rights. Adding the citizenship question, Ross said, was the best way to get the Justice Department the citizenship data it said it needed.
Brunell did not respond to a request for comment.
The Trump administration is facing a handful of lawsuits challenging the decision to add a citizenship question. In some of those challenges, the plaintiffs ― several different states ― argue that one of the reasons for the decision is illegal is because it is unnecessary and “arbitrary, capricious, and an abuse of discretion” under federal law.
The Trump campaign had also appealed for donations based on the addition of a citizenship question. During a preliminary hearing in one of the lawsuits last week, government lawyers distanced themselves from those fundraising emails, saying that adding the citizenship question was Ross’ decision, not Trump’s.
Critics say the Department of Justice already has adequate citizenship data to enforce the Voting Rights Act. They say adding a citizenship question will make it less likely that immigrants and other skeptical of government will respond to the census out of fear of what the government will do with their data (even though it is a crime for the Census Bureau to share any of the data it collects). An inaccurate count would have significant consequences since census data is used as the basis to draw electoral districts and allocate billions in federal funding.
“The Census is supposed to apolitical and count every person living in this country. A citizenship question totally undermines those requirements,” Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) said in a statement.
Brunell told Science that concerns over adding a citizenship question were overblown, saying that he thinks adding any question could be viewed as problematic.
“Asking people their favorite color will decrease response rates,” he said. Still, he added, following up and counting people who don’t mail back their census forms may be more costly.