Texas demographer: Census citizenship question isn't necessary

Texas Tribune News

Emily Albracht for The Texas Tribune

Count the Texas state demographer among those who don’t believe the U.S. Census Bureau should ask about citizenship in the upcoming decennial count.

In an interview with Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith, Lloyd Potter — who has been in the position for almost a decade — said citizenship information was not needed “for the purposes of the census,” which is meant to count every person in the country once a decade. And he indicated the Trump administration’s last-minute decision to include the question was problematic and politically driven.

The inclusion of the citizenship question will ultimately be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, which last month heard arguments in a federal challenge over the use of the question and is expected to rule on the issue this summer. But the administration’s decision to ask about citizenship status has rankled demographers who have warned that such a question would lead to an undercount of Hispanic and immigrant households who would be too fearful to respond to the questionnaire.

Speaking to Smith for his Point of Order podcast, Potter said he was troubled by the “politicization of the census,” which hasn’t asked all households about citizenship since the 1950 census. If the question hasn’t been asked consistently, Smith posited, then why would it be needed now?

“I don’t think that we do,” Potter said.

As the state demographer, Potter is responsible for providing population projections and explaining to Texas leaders where the population is swelling and what that means for the state’s future. A demographer by trade, he was appointed to the position by former Republican Gov. Rick Perry.

He joins former directors of the Census Bureau, including former Texas state demographer Steve Murdock, in coming out against the inclusion of the question. Like local officials and community organizers who work on census efforts, Murdock and several other former directors have been sounding the alarm about the potential fallout from including the question without proper testing.

Potter echoed that in his remarks as well, saying the question was most troubling because the decision to include it came so late even though the bureau is typically meticulous about vetting the wording on the questionnaire that will be sent out.

“I think that seems pretty obvious that essentially it was politically driven,” Potter said. “It wasn’t driven by the bureaucrats of the Census Bureau. I can tell you that.”

But it puts him at odds with state leaders, including Attorney General Ken Paxton and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, who have endorsed the inclusion of the question.

In announcing the question last year, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross indicated that the citizenship-related data was necessary for “more effective enforcement” of the federal Voting Rights Act, and he testified before Congress that the Justice Department had initiated the request to include the question for those purposes back in December. But documents released as part of separate litigation over the question showed that Ross actually considered the addition of the question months before the Justice Department’s request was received.

An accurate census is critical to the state’s political and financial future. It is used to determine how many representatives Texas is entitled to elect to Congress. And the Texas Legislature and local governments rely on the data to redraw corresponding political boundaries.

The census also serves as a roadmap for the distribution of billions of federal dollars to the state and local communities, including funding for low-income housing, medical assistance and transportation projects.

But massive both in size and population, Texas has long been a hard-to-count state because of the millions of Texans who fall into the categories of people who pose the biggest challenges for the headcount — immigrants, college students and children younger than 5 years old, to name a few.