U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross received advance warning that his plan to include a citizenship question on the 2020 census would stir controversy, according to a Duke professor who served on the Census Scientific Advising Committee. 

D. Sunshine Hillygus, professor of political science and director of the Duke Initiative on Survey Methodology, said the committee sent Ross an official recommendation urging him to abandon the idea. Despite the committee’s suggestion, Ross announced on March 26 that the 2020 census would inquire about citizenship at the request of the U.S. Department of Justice. 

Ross’s plan received immediate backlash from immigrant rights advocates and Democratic policymakers who said it will deter immigrant participation and lead to an undercount of the national population. Seventeen states, seven cities and the U.S. Conference of Mayors have already sued the Commerce Department and the Census Bureau in an effort to remove the question from the census questionnaire.

North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein filed a lawsuit Tuesday. 

“North Carolinians pay taxes to the federal government every year,” Stein said in a statement. “In return, they rightfully expect to receive our state’s fair share of federal funding for our roads and schools and an appropriate number of Representatives in Congress. That’s what an accurate census provides for and why I will fight any effort to politicize it.”

But before the lawsuits and the public outcry, Hillygus and her team of CSAC experts told Ross via a set of recommendations that the citizenship question would be controversial. Hillygus said they warned that the question would politicize the census in a way that could lead to undercounting, hacking and distrust. 

“[Ross] heard from everybody in the expert community,” Hillygus said. “There was lots of clear messaging about the fact that this was going to be problematic, which is one of the reasons that its very hard to interpret this as anything other than political.” 

CSAC is an advisory body that consists of up to 21 members and advises the Census Bureau on statistical data collection, survey methodology, geospatial and statistical analysis, econometrics, cognitive psychology, business operations and computer science. Hillygus, the only political scientist on the committee, was appointed in 2012 and renewed for a second three-year term in 2015. 

Now in the last year of her term, she said she has seen several change proposals go “through extensive testing because there is recognition that even very minor changes in the design of the census can have critical implications for people responding.” But the late addition of the citizenship inquiry meant little testing was done to assess the potential impact of the question on response rates.

Still, the question is not new. The census last featured a citizenship question in 1950. However, the Trump administration’s hardline stance on immigration could mean both documented and undocumented immigrants will not reply for fear that their information will not remain anonymous. An undercount of this nature could have serious repercussions because census information is used to allocate federal funding and apportion seats in the U.S. House of Representatives among the states. 

To ensure accurate results over the last few decades, the Census Bureau has avoided politicized questions that could lead to undercounting, Hillygus said. 

“[The Bureau] had worked very hard to try to avoid being viewed as political in recent decades, and Secretary Ross’s decision has just thrown all that effort out the window,” Hillygus said.

The new question—coupled with the fact that the 2020 census will occur during a presidential election year—means politicization is especially likely, she added. In addition to the potential of seeing lower response rates among immigrant communities, there might also be fewer replies from liberals who choose to opt out of the census as a form of protest.

“Even without the citizenship question, the Census Bureau faces a very difficult task of trying to count people in today’s political climate,” Hillygus said. “Absolutely, I would expect that the citizenship question would make it less likely for non-citizens to reply, but they have also just made it less likely that citizens will reply as well.”

She noted that social media movements, such as the #LeaveItBlank Twitter campaign, could be early signs that the census data will be flawed due to a lower response rate. Opponents could also look to interfere with the online interface that administers the census, she added.  

“Because the census count has been politicized, the ways that people might take political action or expression are more likely to include hacking and trying to interfere,” Hillygus said. “[The census] has now become something where they are going to make a political point with it.”

As opposition continues to mount, the Census Bureau will have more trouble handling its responsibilities. Hillygus said more lawsuits not only mean more expenses and more distraction but also more Freedom of Information requests for the Bureau to manage. 

“It’s one of the reasons that I consider this change at the last minute to be so devastating, because it is also just an additional task and obstacle that the Census Bureau has to deal with as they’re trying to get the decennial going,” Hillygus said.