Our Opinion: Citizenship question's cynicism exposed

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It has long seemed apparent that the Trump administration wants to corrupt the 2020 census for political gain, and confirmation may have come in the form of a "smoking gun" found in the files of a late Republican redistricting strategist. But with the U.S. Supreme Court expected to rule on challenges to the administration's determination to add a citizenship question on the census it may be too late to impact the court's decision on this critically important issue.

The U.S. Constitution could not be more clear when it states that the goal of the census since the formation of the nation is "...to account for every man, woman and child regardless of their status as citizens." Nonetheless, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has been trying to add a citizenship question that would if successful surely discourage individuals who normally vote Democratic from going to the polls. A citizen or green card holder might be reluctant to speak with a census worker out of concern that the conversation would expose an undocumented relative or friend. Three federal courts have blocked this attempt, with one judge concluding that the commerce secretary acted "arbritarily and capriciously." The issue has made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard arguments for and against inclusion of the citizenship question on April 23.

On Wednesday, the New York Times reported that documents found on the computer hard drives of Republican strategist Thomas Hofeller, who died in August, showed that the census question was designed to provide an electoral advantage for, in the words of Mr. Hofeller, "Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites." Evidence that the Trump administration obscured Mr. Hofeller's role in a letter to U.S. District Court Judge Jesse Furman, one of the three judges to rule against including the census question, contradicts the sworn testimony of Mr. Ross that providing an advantage to white voters was not the intent of the census question. Mr. Hofeller wrote that adding the census question "would clearly be a disadvantage for the Democrats" and would benefit white Republicans in redistricting.

Mr. Hofeller, according to the New York Times, had achieved "near-mythic status in the Republican Party as the Michelangelo of gerrymandering, the architect of partisan political maps that cemented the party's dominance across the country." The files were discovered by Mr. Hofeller's estranged daughter, Stephanie Hofeller Lizon, who shared them with Common Cause, which is pursuing a gerrymandering lawsuit in North Carolina.

Berkshire County, which has long been suffering from a decline in population, knows first-hand the importance of the census. The 2010 census led to the loss of congressional seat in Massachusetts, prompting a redistricting which expanded the 1st Congressional District to the east, diluting the influence of the Berkshires. Population is also used to determine federal Community Development Block Grant funding for infrastructure planning, construction and other projects, and state officials use the federal census to determine funding for vital programs such as school and highway funding. Berkshire County has been deprived of its traditional census office, with the nearest census office in Massachusetts in the Berkshires to be established in Worcester, two hours away. The Berkshires clearly must have a census that accounts for "every man, woman and child regardless of their status as citizens" but it may not get one.

In response to the damaging Hofeller revelations, the American Civil Liberties Union Thursday filed a motion in New York District Curt requesting sanctions and other appropriate action in light of "apparently untruthful testimony" by Trump administration officials about their rationale for including the census question. The commerce secretary had asserted that it was to in some way protect the Voting Rights Act, which the federal judges found to be unsupported. The ACLU also filed a letter with the U.S. Supreme Court to "respectfully inform" it of the filing of the motion and the scheduling of a hearing next week.

Mr. Hofeller's analysis of how a census question could benefit the Republican Party goes back to 2015, and according to the ACLU filing it shows that "there was a long-standing plan to weaponize the census to dilute minority power." The election of Donald Trump as president, it appears, provided the opportunity for that plan to be made reality. In the era of Trump, when non-partisan government functions like the census have been politically weaponized, it is difficult to imagine the U.S. Supreme Court putting politics aside and rejecting the census question. If it fails to do so, the trickle-down impact of the politicizing of the census will be felt in Massachusetts and Berkshire County.

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