Dead Man's Hard Drives Add Surprise Census Wrinkle

Critics say GOP strategist's work shows citizenship question is about helping Republicans
By Newser Editors,  Newser Staff
Posted May 31, 2019 12:40 PM CDT
New Wrinkle in Census Debate: a Dead Man's Hard Drives
Stock image.   (Getty/jcamilobernal)

The Supreme Court is expected to rule in a matter of weeks on whether the Trump administration can add a citizenship question to the 2020 census. Now, however, a new wrinkle has emerged on the whole issue in an unusual way—via the hard drives of a deceased Republican strategist. Critics say the hard drives provide evidence for what they've been saying all along, that the citizenship question is a thinly disguised attempt to suppress minority voters and help white Republicans. The Justice Department says that's ridiculous. The Supreme Court has been informed of the new development, but whether it will play a role in justices' deliberations remains unclear. The details:

  • The strategist: The GOP's Thomas Hofeller is described by the New York Times as the "Michelangelo of gerrymandering, the architect of partisan political maps that cemented the party's dominance across the country." He died last August, and his estranged daughter, Stephanie Hofeller Lizon, recovered his hard drives.
  • His work: The hard drives, which his daughter gave to the advocacy group Common Cause, detail Hofeller's research in Texas. He concluded that if new voting maps were based not on population but more specifically on the number of American citizens of voting age, they "would be advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic whites." And they "would clearly be a disadvantage to the Democrats," he wrote, per the Washington Post.

  • The problem? Hofeller noted that it's currently impossible to draw citizen-based maps because no such data exists. “Without a question on citizenship being included on the 2020 Decennial Census questionnaire, the use of citizen voting age population is functionally unworkable," wrote in his 2015 study. More than a year later, he urged the Trump transition team to add such a question, per the Times.
  • The legal fight: Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross added the question, and the move was immediately challenged in courts. The Supreme Court heard arguments in April, and the court's five more conservative justices appear ready to allow it to proceed, reports the Los Angeles Times. The ACLU has informed the court of the new information (see the letter), but it wasn't clear what, if any, impact it might have.
  • 'Smoking gun': Those fighting the citizenship question say this is all the proof they need. "The vague rumors about partisan attempts to suppress minority votes—this is a smoking gun," Rey Lopez-Calderon, executive director of California Common Cause, tells NBC News. "This is right up in your face. This is exactly why it was created." The group says it shows that senior Justice Department officials lied when they said the rationale for the addition of the question was to better enforce the Voting Rights Act and thus protect minority votes.
  • The counter-view: The Justice Department disagrees. Hofeller's study "played no role in the department’s December 2017 request to reinstate a citizenship question to the 2020 decennial census," says a spokesperson, who dismisses the allegation as "a last-ditch effort to derail the Supreme Court's consideration of this case."
(More US Census stories.)

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