Voting Rights Roundup: Supreme Court’s census case is poised to turbocharge GOP gerrymandering

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2020 Census: On Tuesday, the Supreme Court heard the Trump administration’s appeal in a lawsuit over its nefarious push to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, the outcome of which could have profoundly disastrous effects for fair political representation. In an ominous sign for democracy, legal observers almost universally concluded after oral arguments that they expect the decision to break 5-4 along ideological lines, with the Republican-appointed justices siding with Trump.​

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​If the court rules in favor of Trump, the question would likely have a chilling effect and intimidate millions of people in immigrant communities into not participating in the census. That could in turn turbocharge a new wave of hyperpartisan Republican gerrymandering nationwide, since the data the census provides is the bedrock of redistricting.

The Constitution mandates that every person in the U.S. be counted in the decennial census, without regard to their legal status, and a question on citizenship hasn’t been included in the census since 1950. Multiple courts have ruled that Trump’s attempt to add the question for 2020 violates both federal laws and the Constitution.

The lower courts have consistently held that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ claim that the citizenship question was needed for the Justice Department to enforce the Voting Rights Act was a bogus pretext that masked the administration’s true motives—likely the deliberate intimidation of immigrant communities. However, Chief Justice John Roberts, who gutted a key provision of the VRA in 2013, cynically appeared to buy the Trump administration’s argument that citizenship data would help enforce the VRA, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

Placing a citizenship question on the census could lead to a dramatic drop in participation among not only undocumented immigrants but also legal residents and naturalized citizens—all out of widespread fear that Trump’s administration could illegally use the data to expand its brutal campaign of human rights abuses directed toward immigrants and asylum-seekers that has shocked the nation over the past year. Indeed, a new analysis in the Washington Post estimates that the question could deter 6 million Latinos from participating—roughly one out of every eight Latinos in America.

Undercounting millions of people would mean that affected communities would lose out not only on their rightful political representation in redistricting but also on federal funding, which is often determined by population statistics. But the citizenship question would be double blow to fair representation because it opens the door to Republican efforts to draw districts based on counting only eligible voters rather than all citizens. What’s more, the Supreme Court hasn’t foreclosed the possibility of permitting this practice, even though it has been a longstanding norm to count every person in redistricting, since elected officials represent voters and nonvoters alike.

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