By Lucia Bragg
The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018, signed by President Donald Trump on March 23, includes an increase in funding for the 2020 census.
The bill appropriates government spending for the rest of the fiscal year, in part raising appropriations for the U.S. Census Bureau by $1.3 billion for a total of $2.8 billion.
Proper funding for the census is an important issue for states because population is used to determine billions in federal funding allocations, determine the number of House seats allocated to each state (which sets the electoral vote for the state) and redraw House districts.
If the census has insufficient resources to execute an accurate count, the result can have significant ramifications. The concern has led some states to invest in efforts to assist the process, like address-checking to make it easier for census staff to identify residents in rural areas or other, more elusive populations. NCSL also issued a letter in September 2017 urging Congress to appropriate sufficient funding to the census to ensure an accurate count.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross issued a memo shortly after the spending package’s passage announcing the census will include a question on citizenship for the first time since 1950. The memo provides a nuanced analysis of legal, program, and policy implications of the question, noting that other Census Bureau surveys continue to include citizenship questions to this day.
Ultimately, Ross concludes that the Department of Justice would need the resulting data as part of Voting Rights Act enforcement, but directs the Census Bureau to position the question last on the census form.
The announcement drew swift backlash from some on the state and local level. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra immediately filed a lawsuit against the administration while New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has agreed to lead what’s become multistate litigation.
Attorneys general from at least 17 states and the US Conference of Mayors have since joined the effort, citing concerns around constitutionality and compromised accuracy. Mayors from over 160 municipalities issued a letter in February citing similar concerns about the citizenship question as well as underfunding. Such officials worry in part that the question would discourage immigrant populations from participating and skew the results.
Some Democratic members of the Senate sent a letter to Senator Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), the chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, requesting a hearing on the issue and testimony from Secretary Ross on the "process, testing and analysis" behind the question.
Lucia Bragg is a policy associate with NCSL's State-Federal Relations Division.