Cheating isn’t winning. We try to teach this to our children, but politics provides the opposite lesson.
Political cheating allows those who engage in it to amass far more power than they have a right to in a constitutional democracy. Its most sophisticated form isn’t ballot-box stuffing but the use of indirect means by those in authority to perpetuate themselves in office.
Within forty-eight hours, Americans were offered two fast courses in the politics of cheating.
Late Monday, the Trump administration—acting against the advice of six previous Census Bureau directors, Republicans and Democrats alike—moved to add to the 2020 census a query about a respondent’s citizenship status.
And on Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard a case that turns on whether Maryland’s gerrymandered district boundaries deprive Republicans of fair representation in Congress.
In both cases, the courts should act to defend our republican democracy. On the census controversy, Congress could also provide a remedy. But most Republicans are likely to be quite happy with the distortions that the citizenship question could introduce into our decennial head count.
There’s a reason why the formal census has not asked about citizenship since 1950, and why it is an especially bad idea to reintroduce it now.
Response rates to the census in lower-income neighborhoods have long been a challenge, and immigrants in the country illegally have worried that answering the questionnaire could endanger their status, despite legal guarantees of confidentiality. Even legal immigrants have shared these worries.
Such concerns have increased exponentially with President Trump targeting undocumented immigrants with a proud and public ferocity.
The undercounting of immigrants would create a twofold injustice. It would tilt representation at all levels of government away from places with large populations of Latinos and other immigrants (often Metropolitan and Democratic-leaning) and overrepresent white, rural regions and states. And it would short-change undercounted areas when it comes to federal funds, since many programs operate on formulas based on the census.
In the Trump era, there is an irony here since one legitimate concern in locales with high levels of recent immigration is that their public services are often strained. Cutting money from such jurisdictions only increases the burdens on local taxpayers, native born and immigrant.