President Trump would like to make someone’s email a central issue in the 2020 election, just as it was in 2016.
I’m on board — though I disagree with which someone we’re talking about.
We should be laser-focused on newly discovered private emails between a high-ranking census official and a GOP operative, and what they reveal about a long-term Republican conspiracy to rip political representation and financial resources from Democrats and people of color.
Thanks to recent court filings, we've learned that the late Thomas Hofeller, a Republican strategist and gerrymandering savant, helped devise a scheme to rig the political system in favor of his party for years, perhaps decades. The plan hinged on an innocuous-sounding addition to the decennial census — a new question about citizenship.
Adding this question could help Republicans in two ways. First has to do with how legislative districts are drawn.
The Constitution says federal congressional seats must be apportioned by total population, but states have some leeway in how they draw their state and local legislative districts. Currently, they generally do so based on equally sized groups of people, as measured by total population. As Hofeller described in a secret 2015 study, data from a census citizenship question could instead help states draw districts around the citizen voting-age population.
Redrawing the legislative map this new way, the study concludes, would dilute the political power of Democrats and Hispanics and "be advantageous to Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites."
Second, adding a citizenship question would likely make households with immigrants or ethnic minorities much less likely to participate in the census at all.
Sure, filling out the decennial census is mandatory, and census data must legally be kept confidential. But these groups have reason to worry about how their information would be used, given how the current president has demonized and threatened to deport them.
In unrelated 2017 survey testing, respondents expressed fears that immigration authorities might come after them or other members of their households; some worried about the "Muslim ban"; some offered fake names and birth dates.
Those fears are likely to worsen if every household is asked to report on the citizenship status of every occupant. A new paper from career U.S. Census Bureau officials estimated that, if the question were added, the census self-response rate for households with at least one noncitizen would be eight percentage points lower than for all-citizen households, all else equal.
The end result is that public officials wouldn't have to pretend these people don't exist when they draw electoral maps, as with the proposed switch from total population to citizen voting-age population (a change that might get blocked in courts anyway).
According to official census records, they actually wouldn’t exist, period.
That would mean fewer congressional seats for, say, California, regardless of how the legislative map within California got drawn. It would also mean fewer federal funds for areas with large immigrant or ethnic-minority populations, as census data helps determine how hundreds of billions of dollars get allocated each year.
Hofeller's unpublished study would have remained secret had his estranged daughter not recently discovered his old hard drives and given them to a voting-rights group. These materials showed that portions of the 2017 Justice Department letter that provided the supposed legal rationale for adding a citizenship question — an obviously bogus explanation involving the Voting Rights Act — were taken verbatim from Hofeller's study.
Faced with this new electronic paper trail, which appeared to contradict statements administration officials had made under oath, the administration at first appeared indignant. It improbably claimed there was no evidence that there was even a connection between the Hofeller study and the Census Bureau.
And then, in another recent court filing, plaintiffs challenging the citizenship question dropped another bombshell: Hofeller had been emailing with Christa Jones, now the chief of staff to the deputy director at census. For years.
The messages show that Jones, while a census employee, communicated with Hofeller from both her government email and a separate private account about census-related and redistricting issues since at least 2010. At one point, shortly before the 2015 study was done, she specifically flagged a Federal Register notice for comment on the Census Bureau's 2015 Content Test, saying that it could "be an opportunity to mention citizenship."
The Supreme Court heard a challenge to the citizenship question this spring — before these Hofeller bombshells dropped — and a decision about its legality is expected this week. Given these lies, damned lies and (would-be) statistics, the court should have little choice but to block this tainted question from being asked.
Catherine Rampell’s email address is email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter, @crampell.