Census Wars 2020

Hi Joel,

Thanks for drawing our attention to the Kris Kobach-approved idea to change the US Census so that it distinguishes between citizens and non-citizens and then uses the number of citizens–not the total number of residents–in a state to determine representation in the House and, in turn, how many electoral votes a state gets.

Anti-immigrants conservatives claim that this would insure that representation is limited to only those who deserve, by right of citizenship, to be represented. When people who aren’t eligible voters are included in a tally to determine how many House seats or electoral votes a state gets, that gives power to people who ought not have it. That feels unfair to some people. Indeed, the group that brought the argument to the Supreme Court (which said that states could apportion votes based on total number of people or total number of votes and that the decision should be made by the individual state) in 2016 calls itself the Project on Fair Representation.

But though it’s tempting to think of this strategy of doling out power as “fair,” we shouldn’t fall for it (or think that Kris Kobach is living by his principles since, if this plan were put into effect, it would likely mean that Kansas would LOSE a House seat and thus an electoral vote).  Earl Warren’s “one man, one vote” doesn’t mean that people who are not voters–even if they have to pay taxes into the system and have to obey its laws–should have no say. 

Who doesn’t get to vote in this system? It’s not just undocumented immigrants or legal immigrants who aren’t citizens. It’s also, in many states, felons, parolees, and ex-felons, who are disproportionately people of color, and children (46% of whom are racial or ethnic minorities–much higher than the rate of adults). States with high numbers of people with prison records and states with more children would lose out. Whether individuals supporting this change are racist, the consequence of it is that people of color will lose out.

If conservatives in state legislatures get their way and count only eligible voters, then, yes, Kansas and some other rural states that rely on immigrant farm laborers will lose. But that may be worth it to take even more power away from other immigrant-heavy states.

Here is Pew’s data on which states have the largest percent of foreign-born residents: Top 15 states with highest percentage of immigrants, California, New Mexico, New York

As the chart shows, the states with the highest percent of foreign-born residents (most of whom would be ineligible to vote) are overwhelming blue states. The states hurt most won’t be rural places like Kansas but states with our biggest urban centers: California, New York, Florida, Massachusetts, Illinois. The goal isn’t merely anti-immigrant (though that appeal is how the effort is sold) but anti-urban. It’s a defense against the fact that more and more Americans choose to live in urban areas–about 80% of us, according to the Census.

In short, it’s a way to keep power in the hands of rural whites–just as the Three-Fifths Compromise did.  Conservatives don’t have ideas for governance that voters find compelling, so they have to rig the system in their favor. It’s all they have.




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