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The GOP’s secret roadmap to undermine the 2020 census

Somehow gerrymandering is not enough for the Republicans any more

For two years, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has been pushing a plan to add a citizenship question to the census. His cover story doesn’t hold up, Shapiro writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
For two years, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has been pushing a plan to add a citizenship question to the census. His cover story doesn’t hold up, Shapiro writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

OPINION — Thomas Hofeller was always precise about the pronunciation of his chosen profession. He correctly called it a “gerrymander” with a hard “G” rather than the far more common usage that makes rigged political mapmaking sound reminiscent of “Jerry Ford.”

Hofeller, who died last August, was the most artful and devious Republican cartographer of his generation. The sweeping Republican legislative and gubernatorial victories in 2010 gave him a vast canvas on which to jigger the voting districts — and produced the widespread theory (disproven in 2018) that the Democrats would never win back the House in this decade.

Gerrymandering has always been a bipartisan sport. The main reason that it has become associated with Republicans and Hofeller is that they had both motive and far more opportunities after the 2010 elections. But according to his obituary, Hofeller only became a partisan warrior after witnessing the heavy-handed Democratic approach to redistricting in California after the 1980 census.

It turns out that there was far more to the Hofeller story than merely tweaking district lines to dramatically increase the odds of GOP victories, or pioneering the practice of creating overwhelmingly black congressional districts in the South to minimize Democratic chances elsewhere.

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It was revealed last week in a federal court filing that Hofeller left behind another legacy — a diabolical plan to use the 2020 census to reduce congressional and legislative representation in areas with large Latino populations. It was a reflection of the way that Republicans have gone beyond gerrymandering and tried to diminish the value of voting itself.

After Hofeller died in Raleigh, North Carolina, his estranged daughter obtained four hard drives and 18 thumb drives from his computers. She had been searching for family photographs and other memorabilia. But what she also found was Hofeller’s roadmap for the GOP to undermine the 2020 census.

For two years, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has been pushing a plan to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census. A picture of innocence, Ross even obtained a Justice Department letter claiming that the sole purpose of the citizenship question was to better monitor compliance with the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Guess what? That cover story has about as good a provenance as a bottle of Trump wine.

Based on materials from Hofeller’s computer files, it appears that the political mapmaker invented the census gambit in 2015. He wrote at the time that a citizenship question “would clearly be a disadvantage to the Democrats” and “advantageous to Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites.”

Court filings in the Supreme Court case challenging the census citizenship question also suggest that Hofeller invented the fake rationale that the Justice Department used.

Oddly enough, a paragraph citing two voting rights cases in Hofeller’s files appeared virtually word-for-word in the Department of Justice letter. As the ACLU’s filing in the case states, “The content, language and structure of the DOJ’s December 2017 letter bears striking similarities to Dr. Hofeller’s 2015 study. … The two documents present these similar descriptions and arguments in the exact same order.”

With the Supreme Court slated to rule on the census case before the end of its term this month, it is impossible to predict how much weight the justices will place on these late-minute filings based on the material from Hofeller’s computers.

But there is a larger issue here that goes beyond the legalities of the census case. Somehow gerrymandering is not enough for the Republicans any more. Now the battleground is the bedrock document of representation itself — the numbers from the census.

Asking about citizenship at a time of vicious Donald Trump-ordered crackdowns by immigration agents means that fewer Hispanics would fill out the forms or agree to be interviewed by census- takers. It does not matter whether the skittish would be legal residents or those who live in the shadows illegally.

[It’s not just the citizenship question. 2020 census faces other woes]

The result, as Hofeller correctly theorized, would be an inaccurately lower count of how many people live in the United States. Currently, Democrats represent nine of the 10 congressional districts with the most noncitizens, according to Census Bureau calculations.

It is tempting to blame Trump for the poisonous partisanship that is undermining once-shared democratic values. But Hofeller came up with his ploy to undermine the census in 2015, when the idea of a real estate barker and reality show host as president seemed ludicrous.

Nothing about Hofeller’s background suggests that he was a rabid the-enemy-is-at-the-gates conservative who saw the world in apocalyptic tones. Rob Christensen, a columnist for the Raleigh News & Observer, described Hofeller in 2017 as a “74-year-old grandfatherly-looking computer geek who … is a self-described moderate Republican.”

Yet Hofeller serves as a case study of how Republicans have tried to shred constitutional norms in an effort to gain an edge in politics. It is not just everybody-does-it gerrymandering. Now it is the GOP’s belief that all tactics are justified in the titanic struggle to thwart both the Democrats and voting itself.

If using Hofeller as a symbol for an entire political party seems exaggerated, then try Kris Kobach, the former Kansas secretary of state and Trump’s favorite voting expert.

Kobach’s ineptly run presidential commission failed to find any evidence of the purported millions of illegal votes that Trump claimed cost him his popular majority in 2016. And then Kobach bombed out of his chance to be the president’s immigration czar by demanding a personal plane, weekends at home in Kansas and access to the Oval Office whenever he felt like wandering in.

The sad truth is that the Republicans have turned the voting wars into a fight as lethal as World War I. In such a struggle, there are no long-term winners — only democracy as the permanent loser.

Walter Shapiro has covered the last 10 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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