By former Assemblymember Steven Sanders
Something really important happened last week at the United State Supreme Court. Arguments both pro and con were presented regarding a Trump Administration policy to change the way in which the decennial census is calculated by the federal Department of Commerce. The outcome could impact New York State in a big way.
Every ten years the government counts the total number of individuals residing in the country, broken down by each individual state and its cities, towns and villages. Currently the national population estimate updated in 2017 stands at 325,719,178 persons. In New York State, the number is 19,849,399. That includes both citizens and non-citizens alike.
So what’s going on at the Supreme Court and what’s the big deal? And should we be concerned?
The Department of Commerce wants to make a change to the census questionnaires that will be sent next year to every household, and other residential facilities. They want to inquire whether the respondents are citizens or not. The validity of including that question has been challenged and the Supreme Court will soon decide. On the surface this all might seem innocuous…but it is not. In fact it is insidious.
Aside from accurately recording the number of persons who live in this country, the census is used to determine the number of members of Congress in each state and to draw the political district boundaries called reapportionment.
The population numbers are also the basis for allotting the amount of votes each state has in the Electoral College which is how we actually elect a president. Remember, Donald Trump was elected by winning the Electoral College despite having lost the actual popular vote to Hillary Clinton by nearly three million votes. The other reason why the population count is very important is that it is used as the calculus to distribute billions of dollars in federal assistance from Washington D.C. to the states.
So quite simply, the greater the population count of a state, the more impact it has in Presidential elections and the more funding it can receive from the federal government. An undercount results in the opposite. So should New Yorkers be concerned? For sure!
It is feared that the citizenship question will be used by the Trump Administration to identify and then try to deport non-citizens. This is no idle threat, as we have seen. The president and his Immigration Control Enforcement agency (ICE) have become extremely aggressive in trying to root out undocumented migrants and forcibly remove them. Many such persons tend to migrate through ports of entry in coastal states with large urban areas like in New York and California.
But it gets even more worrisome. If people fear being harassed and even threatened with deportation, many non-citizens will decline to answer the census questionnaire altogether even if they are legal residents. That would result in an undercount for a number of states where immigration is very prevalent.
New York and other states that have welcomed immigrants, contrary to Trump’s policies and have stymied the excessive tactics deployed by ICE, seem to have the most to lose… either by design or coincidence.
The opponents of this census change, including the New York State attorney general, argue that it is merely a back door way of minimizing the influence of certain states in Congress and presidential elections, as well as reducing the availability of federal funds to those states.
The Trump Administration says no. They say that they only wish to know how many actual citizens reside in this country and that they have no ulterior motives. Anything else is just a coincidence. If you buy that, you may also be interested in purchasing a bridge in Brooklyn.