Judge Declines to Block Citizenship Question from the 2020 Census on Privacy Grounds

This has been an ongoing issue that will affect future genealogists. In short, the Census Bureau proposed adding a question asking for each U.S. resident’s citizenship status in the 2020 census forms. A privacy and civil liberties nonprofit group, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, responded by launching a lawsuit against the government claiming that the US Census Bureau was required to first complete a privacy impact assessment. The Electronic Privacy Information Center then asked for an immediate injunction be issued to prevent the Census Bureau from going forward with the citizenship question until the issue had been decided in the courts..

On Friday, US District Judge Dabney Friedrich declined to issue a preliminary injunction. The Electronic Privacy Information Center said in a statement it “intends to press forward with” its lawsuit.

A citizenship question has been asked of census respondents before, but not since 1950.

A side issue is that this issue caused a lot of controversy and a Justice Department filing in the case shows that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross allegedly lied in his testimony before a Congressional committee. Ross claimed the Justice Department had requested the question, not anyone in the Census Bureau, which is part of the Commerce Department. However, earlier email messages clearly show that Ross had previously discussed the citizenship question with White House officials, a fact that he later denied in his testimony before Congress.

You can read more and watch a video about this issue in the CNN web site at: https://www.cnn.com/2019/02/09/politics/census-2020-citizenship-question/index.html.


David Paul Davenport February 12, 2019 at 1:50 am

No Judge would ever rule that “Electronic privacy” applies to the US census which is conducted using paper and pencil.


    Iit’s true that in the past the census has been collected on paper, either by census-takers in person, or more recently through the mail, but it has also been reported that the government is considering using the internet to take the 2020 and future censuses electronically for reasons of perceived convenience, efficiency and cost reduction. I have not seen any confirmation that any final decision has been made, just that this was being considered, and I do have to wonder how they would handle households without internet accees (there are a number of rural areas which do not have any. cable or cell phone service at all, plus many households in areas where such services are available which lack such services because they can’t afford the price).


Why would we expect anyone who is illegally in this country to answer honestly on a census form.


    If you can find the time to read the decision in the NY case previously reported on in one of Dick’s earlier posts, it appears that in many such cases, when it comes to the confidential community survey conducted between censuses which does ask about citizenship, they just don’t bother to mail in the questionnaire form, so they are never counted at all, and in about 30% of the cases where the questionnaire is returned, they are reported as being citizens when they’re not. This was one of the reasons the Census Bureau apparently recommended against including the question on the 2020 census.


There are many people who have or plan to apply for citizenship. How do you think they will answer that question. Will this be a straight yes or no question?


As genealogists, we are used to getting reams of wonderful information from the censuses of the period from 1850-1940, so we look forward to getting more of the same as subsequent censuses for 1950 to date continue to be released to the public going forward, but I’m afraid we may be in for a big disappointment because changes in the purposes for which the census has been used have vastly reduced the amount of information collected in post 1950 US Censuses.

The original purpose of the census was to get an accurate head count in order to distribute seats in the House of Representatives by population, as required by the US Constitution. That’s why the early census returns consist of merely the name of the head of bousehold and a bunch of numbers on a chart indicating how many people of a given age and sex resided in the household. The 1850 census was the first to ask for all their names, and it wasn’t until the 1855 state censuses that we begin to see the appearance of their relationship to the head of household.

As time went on, the census began to be used to collect social and economic information from which anonymized statistical reports could be prepared for use by other government agencies and private businesses for forecasting and planning purposes. Over the years, the number of questions expanded and the mix changed, depending on the particular concerns of the decade, to include such things as literacy, level of education, occupations, citizenship status, dates of arrival in the US, etc. — all that stuff that we love to discover about our ancestors.

However, somewhere in about the 1960s, at whole lot of people began to get fed up with what they considered to be unduly intrusive questions about things like how many rooms were in their homes, or whether or not they had indoor plumbing, and threatened to begin a campaign of passive resistance to taking part in the census at all. This development could have undermined the usefulness of the census for its primary purpose of getting an accurate headcount of residents in order to apportion seats in the House of Represehtatives as required by the US Constitution.

In response, the more detailed long questionnaire began to be sent to only a statiscally relevant sampling of households, while everyone else got a new short form, from which most of the questions asked in the censuses we all know and love had been removed. Eventually, the long form was abolished and replaced by the separately conducted American Community Survey. Unlike the census, the ACS covers only a fraction of US households and will never be released for public view, ever.

You can see and compare the questions* that as of March 2018 were proposed to be asked for the US Census as against the ACS here:

Click to access planned-questions-2020-acs.pdf

*Please note that the notes on the history of the citizenship question are somewhat misleading (see the URL Gary posted for a more accurate history) and the reason given for asking the question (to enforce the voting rights law) has been found by the district court in NY court to be a pretext (not the real reason), based on internal correspondence of the decision maker disclosed in connection with litigation over the question.


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