Whitewashing Representation: How Using Citizenship Data to Gerrymander Will Undermine Our Democracy

Partisan operatives are trying to change how electoral districts are drawn, in a radical effort to undermine our representative democracy. By law, electoral districts must have about the same number of people, and state leaders draw those boundaries based on total population counts. But a group of party leaders at the national and state level have been plotting to draw state legislative and congressional districts based solely on the citizen voting-age population (CVAP)—a move that they believe would be advantageous to white voters and harm areas where more people of color, legal residents, immigrants and children live.

These secret efforts manifested in the Trump Administration’s quest to whitewash our representation by demanding that the 2020 Census include a citizenship question. He abandoned that effort after a U.S. Supreme Court loss and instead issued an executive order demanding several federal agencies provide all their information – that is, administrative data – on citizenship status to the Census Bureau. He ordered the Bureau to combine this administrative data with data from the decennial census and the American Community Survey (ACS) in order to identify non-citizens residing in the United States. The Census Bureau plans to send the aggregate data to states for redistricting.

In recently revealed documents, Dr. Thomas Hofeller, the Republican gerrymandering strategist behind many of the most controversial gerrymandered maps, analyzed and concluded that basing redistricting on citizens aged 18 and over, would “be advantageous to Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites.” He recognized that this move away from using a count of the total U.S. population would be a “radical departure from the federal ‘one person, one vote’ rule” that underlies our representative democracy.

Hofeller stated creating this racial and partisan advantage by removing millions of American residents could only be achieved by collecting citizenship data at the census block level.

Using citizen voting age data to draw districts will exclude millions of young people and people of color, violates the Constitution and undermines the principles of equal representation that our country strives towards.

Understanding the intricacies of what administrative data is, how it is used and what challenges can arise from its use in the 2020 Census gives advocates the tools to fight back.

Takeaways from the report include:

  1. Administrative data on citizenship should not be merged with 2020 Census data in the redistricting files that are sent to states because the data will be used by partisan operatives to justify skewing electoral districts in a manner that, in the words of Thomas Hofeller, is “advantageous to Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites”.
  2. The integrity of the 2020 Census and American Community Survey data should not be tainted by inaccurate and unreliable administrative data on people’s changing immigration status. The administrative data on citizenship will exacerbate the undercount of children and people of color.
  3. There are significant legal protections that prohibit the sharing and use of census data to target individuals, but there are risks that advocates should be aware and vigilant of.

Have a question that is not answered here? Email Keshia Morris at kmorris@commoncause.org or Suzanne Almeida at salmeida@commoncause.org.