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Democrats pounce on citizenship question revelations

Documents show gerrymandering, not Voting Rights Act, was true motivation, Cummings alleges

People protest outside the Supreme Court in April against the Trump administration’s proposal to include a citizenship question in the 2020 census. (Win McNamee/Getty Images file photo)
People protest outside the Supreme Court in April against the Trump administration’s proposal to include a citizenship question in the 2020 census. (Win McNamee/Getty Images file photo)

Democrats on the House Oversight and Reform Committee charged Thursday that new documents cited by an advocacy group show that President Donald Trump added a citizenship question to the 2020 census primarily to give Republicans the upper hand in the next round of congressional redistricting.

The documents, which allegedly show that a Republican strategist pushed the administration to include the question for partisan gain, were revealed amid months of conflict between the committee and the administration that culminated recently in the head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division defying a subpoena. They also emerged as the Supreme Court nears a decision on a challenge to the citizenship question.

House Oversight Chairman Elijah E. Cummings said in a statement that the administration had obstructed the investigation to obscure the true motivation.

Those documents suggest that “the Trump Administration added the citizenship question not to help enforce the Voting Rights Act, which was the pretext they tried to sell the American people, but to gerrymander congressional districts in overtly racist and partisan ways,” the Maryland Democrat said.

The documents filed Thursday in the litigation over the citizenship question were discovered by the daughter of conservative redistricting strategist Thomas Hofeller after his death and turned over to Common Cause, which revealed their existence Thursday in federal court. The documents indicate Hofeller acted as a source of the administration’s suggestion to add a citizenship question to the census to help states draw maps for Republican advantage.

Committee Democrats and the administration have spent the last few months in an escalating struggle over oversight requests. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross last testified before the panel in April, saying the addition of the citizenship question to the census came in response to a request from the Justice Department.

The letter filed in the citizenship case said Ross adviser A. Mark Neuman had served as a conduit for the question and alleged that the head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights division John Gore and Neuman hid Hofeller’s involvement in drafting the DOJ request for the citizenship question.

Gore defied a subpoena to appear before the panel last month following a closed-door interview with the committee earlier this year. A DOJ letter stated that Gore would not comply with the subpoena, as it would have required him to appear without DOJ counsel present.

A DOJ spokesperson on Thursday described the new allegations as “false.”

“Before today, Mr. Gore had never heard of the unpublished study apparently obtained from the personal effects of a deceased political consultant. That study played no role in the Department’s December 2017 request to reinstate a citizenship question to the 2020 decennial census,” the spokesperson said.

But New York Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, an Oversight member and co-leader of the House Census Caucus, called the documents “damning proof” that the administration set out to disenfranchise voters. She and other Democrats have accused Ross of lying to the panel and called for more oversight of the process.

“The Administration’s actions are unconstitutional and un-American,” Maloney said in a statement. “This is another blatant attack on our democracy.”

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a motion for sanctions along with redacted versions of the documents Thursday. The group alleges in a letter filed with a federal court in New York that “Neuman and Gore falsely testified [to the court] about the genesis of DOJ’s request to Commerce in ways that obscured the pretextual character of the request.”

U.S. District Judge Jesse M. Furman gave the government until 10 a.m. Friday to object to filing the unredacted documents. The judge also set a June 5 hearing on the new information.

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Supreme Court impact?

The new information on possible motivations for Ross’ decision to add the citizenship question comes at the eleventh hour for the Supreme Court, which is nearing an opinion on whether the Commerce Department can add it to the 2020 census.

The case already was rushed to the court ahead of a July deadline for sending the questionnaires to be printed, and the justices agreed to quickly decide the case so they could issue a ruling before the end of June.

While the new information could inflame the political tensions of the case, it’s unclear how it might affect that decision or if the Supreme Court would even consider it.

“We’re in uncharted territory,” said Dale Ho, the director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, who argued the case at the court in April. The civil rights group filed a two-page letter with the court Thursday afternoon to “respectfully inform the Court” of the motion filed in federal court in New York.

Ho said that even if the government has discretion to make a decision such as adding a citizenship question to the census, it has to be transparent about why it is doing it. That is an important part of holding agencies accountable and critical for congressional oversight, he added.

These documents are “doubly problematic” because it indicates not just that the government had a different, unstated reason for the citizenship question, Ho said, but that its goal was the exact opposite of what the administration was trying to do.

“If the government can do things and do them for reasons that are opposite of the government is saying publicly, we’re in Orweillian territory,” Ho said.

Ross’ motivations for adding the citizenship question were already a central part of those arguments, but that doesn’t mean the court’s ultimate decision would turn on that motivation.

Another hurdle is how to get the information before the justices at all, since the documents have only now emerged. The challengers would have to get permission from the Supreme Court to file additional evidence, and the Justice Department could contest that.

Wendy Weiser, director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, said the new information puts the court in a difficult spot because it shows a malicious and impermissible purpose for the government’s decision.

“It would strike a blow at the court’s reputation if it allows that kind of action to stand in the face of this,” she said.

The case is one of the most significant for members of Congress during the current Supreme Court term because the census results determine how many House seats each state gets, how states redraw congressional districts and the distribution of billions of dollars from federal programs to states and local governments.

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