The Supreme Court Tuesday will hear oral arguments in the Trump administration’s appeal of lower-court orders forbidding it to ask a citizenship question in the 2020 census. The justices’ task in Department of Commerce v. New York won’t be difficult: The law and facts overwhelmingly support the administration. But the case is a proxy for future battles over redistricting and reapportionment, vital components of American democracy that determine the balance of political power within and among states.
The Census Act grants the commerce secretary discretion to conduct the census “in such form and content as he may determine.” In rejecting the citizenship question, the lower courts usurped that authority and frustrated Congress’s intent. The question about citizenship is far from unprecedented: It was asked in every census but one from 1820 to 1950. Most advanced democracies ask for citizenship information in censuses, a United Nations-recommended best practice.
The administration argues that the citizenship data would help in enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, and that is manifestly true. By law, “majority minority” districts must be drawn so at least 50% of eligible voters—i.e., citizens over 18—are members of the minority in question. If too many minority residents are ineligible to vote, that defeats the purpose of avoiding the dilution of minority voting strength. Voting-rights litigation and compliance are hampered by the lack of citizenship data in the decennial census.