People For the American Way

PFAW Brief: Our Democracy Depends On a Full and Fair Census

People For in Action
PFAW Brief: Our Democracy Depends On a Full and Fair Census

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross made the wrong decision when he approved a politically motivated, untested census citizenship question requested by the “InJustice” Department. People For the American Way and PFAW activists have been working hard to stop this latest anti-immigrant attack in its tracks. In addition to our demand for congressional hearings, PFAW has joined with organizational allies to file a friend-of-the-court brief with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York in New York State’s case challenging the citizenship question. As we note in our brief, this Trump-Ross attack undermines the integrity of the census count, damages people of color and other marginalized groups, and violates the Census Bureau’s constitutional and statutory duties. Our brief’s introduction follows below. Click here to download a PDF copy of the full brief.


Amici (listed in the Appendix) are grassroots, advocacy, labor, legal services, and other organizations committed to the protection of civil and human rights in the United States. What unites this coalition is an interest in ensuring that all communities—particularly young children, women, immigrants, low-income communities, and communities of color—continue to enjoy the recognition, freedom, and economic and political power to which they are entitled under the U.S. Constitution. The government’s addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 census gravely threatens to undermine that goal.

A fair and accurate 2020 census is a critical civil rights issue. Not only is the constitutionally mandated census central to apportioning political power at every level of government, but the data collected also influence the annual allocation of more than $800 billion in federal money, along with countless policy and investment decisions by government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and private enterprise. Given its foundational importance to American government and society, the census must be above partisan politics. The misguided decision to reverse seventy years of consistent census practice and insert an untested citizenship question undermines the integrity of the count, damages our communities, and violates the Census Bureau’s constitutional and statutory duties to conduct a full enumeration of the U.S. population.


Amici have spent decades advocating, educating the public, and litigating around issues concerning full and equal participation in the American political process, and so have vast knowledge and experience concerning the census and the uses to which it has been put—including, as relevant here, allocating federal programmatic funding, determining equitable political representation, and enforcing voting rights. This brief addresses three issues on which defendants and their amici have staked their defense of the citizenship question and as to which amici are uniquely equipped to provide guidance to this Court.

First, defendants’ motion to dismiss and their amici’s briefs in support proceed from the same overstated premise that the census has long posed a citizenship question like the one slated for inclusion in the 2020 census. In truth, the last census to have asked all respondents to indicate their citizenship was in 1950, prior to the enactment of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) and path-marking Supreme Court decisions confirming core constitutional protections for equal voting rights and political representation.

Second, defendants and their amici contend that plaintiffs lack standing because the inclusion of the citizenship question will not suppress response rates or lead to an undercount, and that in any event the deleterious effects plaintiffs allege will follow from an undercount are all speculative and contingent. Amici and their constituencies have spent decades in the field, working with communities to ensure full participation in the census. Their experience, and the findings of social scientists, all confirm that including the citizenship question will lead—indeed, already has led—to depressed participation, particularly among families that include immigrants, young children, and people of color.

Third, defendants contend—cynically and incorrectly—that inclusion of the citizenship question is necessary to ensure proper enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. That claim should be rejected; the Voting Rights Act has been enforced throughout its history notwithstanding the absence of a citizenship question on the census, and including the question now for the first time would have disastrous results.

Click here to download a PDF copy of the full brief.