Just as the Supreme Court considers whether the Trump administration can add a question about citizenship to the 2020 Census, a New York Times report has intensified the redistricting battle. The Times profiles the late Thomas B. Hofeller, a Republican strategist, who, before he died last summer, was called the “Michelangelo of gerrymandering.” According to the report, Hofeller’s estranged daughter discovered hard drives that revealed his influential role in adding the citizenship question to next year’s census.
The files prove, the Times concludes, that “the Trump Administration added the question to the 2020 census to advance Republican Party interests”—specifically, to gerrymander congressional districts favoring the GOP. The Times editorial board added that “the trove of documents . . . makes it hard to see the Trump administration’s efforts to include a citizenship questions . . . as anything but a partisan power grab.” And a Times opinion writer even questioned the Supreme Court’s “legitimacy” if it rules in favor of the administration.
The citizenship question would inevitably discourage noncitizens from responding to the Census, resulting in their absence from the national head count. Their exclusion would affect the drawing of congressional districts, a process constitutionally based on total population, not the number of citizens. Hofeller undoubtedly studied the political implications of counting citizens only: documents submitted to the Court show that his idea dates to 2015. He promoted his proposal to Trump’s transition team, arguing that the added question would ensure enforcement of the Voting Rights Act.
While documenting Hofeller’s influential role, though, the Times deliberately overlooks a crucial fact: the Census status quo strongly favors Democrats. Start with the basics. The Constitution requires that all congressional districts be drawn to include roughly the same population. The Census count determines population numbers and requires, per the Constitution, an enumeration of “all free people”—citizens and non-citizens alike. Democratic districts—drawn from immigrant-heavy cities, for instance—are more likely to include noncitizen immigrants, legal and illegal. According to an Axios analysis, ten Democratic districts include a foreign-born population of higher than 40 percent. Only two Republican districts have a comparable composition. Nationwide, only 11 GOP seats have at least 20 percent foreign-born residents, compared with more than 50 Democratic seats. In Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s New York congressional district, for instance, some 325,000 of the 691,000 residents are foreign-born. In Republican Jim Jordan’s Ohio district, meantime, that figure is just 1 percent. Congressional Democrats, then, often represent districts with large foreign-born populations, resulting in fewer potential voters. The average Democratic district includes fewer citizens among its roughly 735,000 residents than the average Republican district.
The party relies, in effect, on this non-voting population for the Census count—the inclusion of noncitizens increases the likelihood of Democratic victories. If such residents were not included in the Census “enumeration,” congressional districts would be drawn differently and what are now safe blue seats might not be. Indeed, some states with large concentrations of noncitizens might lose congressional seats altogether. This is exactly what Democrats are worried about, should noncitizens be deterred from responding to the Census. According to Census data from 2010, just 44 percent of the foreign-born are naturalized citizens—down from 64 percent in 1970.
In Montana—which, in 2016, had just one congressional district statewide—only 2 percent of residents were foreign-born. Then-Representative Ryan Zinke, later Trump’s Interior secretary, needed 285,358 votes (of 491,000) to win 56 percent of the vote. That same year, California Representative Maxine Waters required just 167,017 votes (of 219,000 total) to garner a much higher percentage of a smaller total vote. In her district, 32 percent of the population is foreign-born—and 46 percent are Hispanic, even as she, an African-American, is perennially reelected.
Waters’s electoral advantage, common in urban regions, exemplifies how Democratic candidates can win with fewer votes. Indeed, Ocasio-Cortez won her primary against powerful incumbent Joe Crowley with just 16,000 votes. Perhaps the number of blue districts would decrease if citizens made up a larger proportion of their residents.
A bipartisan solution would involve Democrats’ recognition that the Census Bureau should have accurate citizenship numbers. The party, following the tradition of big-city political machines, should also encourage noncitizens to apply for citizenship—ensuring, long term, their count in Census numbers. Let’s strive to end, or at least limit, representation without the vote.