KETR

GOP Redistricting Strategist Played Role In Push For Census Citizenship Question

May 30, 2019
Originally published on May 30, 2019 9:54 pm

Updated at 10:53 p.m. ET

A major Republican redistricting strategist played a role in the Trump administration's push to get a citizenship question on forms for the 2020 census.

Thomas Hofeller, who died last August, concluded in a 2015 report that adding the question would produce the data needed to redraw political maps that would be "advantageous to Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites," according to a court filing released Thursday.

Plaintiffs in one of the New York-based lawsuits over the question say that Hofeller later ghostwrote an early draft of the administration's request for the question and helped form a reason for adding the question to forms for the national head count.

The Trump administration has maintained it wants census responses to the question — "Is this person a citizen of the United States?" — to better enforce Voting Rights Act protections for racial and language minorities.

But Hofeller's documents uncovered through a separate lawsuit suggest administration officials were aware that including the question "would not benefit Latino voters, but rather would facilitate significantly reducing their political power," argue attorneys with the law firm Arnold & Porter, the ACLU and the New York Civil Liberties Union in a letter to U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman.

The revelations come weeks before the Supreme Court is expected to issue a major ruling on whether the Trump administration can add the citizenship question to the 2020 census. A total of seven lawsuits have been filed around the country against the administration's plans for the question, which are currently blocked by orders from three federal judges at lower courts.

If the question is included on the census, Census Bureau research shows it is highly likely to scare households with noncitizens, especially within the Latinx and immigrant communities, from taking part in the constitutionally mandated headcount of every person living in the U.S.

In their letter to Furman, the plaintiffs' attorneys also say that Hofeller's role was kept hidden by Justice Department official John Gore and an adviser on census issues to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.

Ross oversees the Census Bureau and approved adding the question. Both Gore and the adviser, A. Mark Neuman, sat for questioning under oath last year for the citizenship question lawsuits. Gore, however, only recently disclosed as part of a congressional investigation by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform that Neuman provided an early draft of the Justice Department's letter requesting the question.

That draft letter includes a paragraph about using the Voting Rights Act to justify the question. It matches word for word a paragraph found in a document among Hofeller's files. The plaintiffs' attorneys say that shows Hofeller ghostwrote a portion of the draft letter.

The attorneys argue that the newly revealed evidence contradicts Gore's and Neuman's sworn testimony for the lawsuits and have asked Furman to consider issuing sanctions or other penalties.

The Commerce Department referred NPR's requests for comment to the Justice Department. In a written statement, a Justice Department spokesperson said the plaintiffs' allegations are "false" and that Gore "had never heard" of Hofeller's 2015 study.

"That study played no role in the Department's December 2017 request to reinstate a citizenship question to the 2020 decennial census," the spokesperson said. "These unfounded allegations are an unfortunate last-ditch effort to derail the Supreme Court's consideration of this case."

After reading the attorneys' letter, Neuman said that he "gave comprehensive and truthful testimony."

"My mother immigrated to this country from Central America," Neuman said in a written statement. "Any inference that I would advocate actions that would harm the interests of the Latino community is wrong and offensive to me."

Furman has scheduled a hearing on June 5 at the U.S. District Court in Manhattan to discuss the request by the plaintiffs' attorneys.

Hofeller's documents were initially obtained through his daughter, who provided them to Common Cause as part of the government watchdog group's lawsuit in North Carolina state court. The group is challenging gerrymandered state legislative maps that Hofeller helped draw. Attorneys with Arnold & Porter — the law firm involved with one of the citizenship question lawsuits — are representing Common Cause.

Before his death, Hofeller appeared to predict the legal battle that ensued after Ross announced his decision to add the citizenship question. In his 2015 study commissioned by The Washington Free Beacon, a conservative news outlet, he wrote that using census responses to a citizenship question for redistricting "can be expected to provoke a high degree of resistance from Democrats and the major minority groups in the nation."

"The chances of a U.S. Supreme Court's mandate to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Decennial Census are not high," he wrote.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

There are new revelations today in the legal battle over the citizenship question the Trump administration wants to add to the 2020 census. Court filings suggest the administration pushed to add the question so political maps could be redrawn to favor Republicans and non-Hispanic white people. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang has been covering this legal battle from the beginning. He joins us now from New York. And Hansi, first, just remind us what the citizenship question asks, why it sparked so many legal challenges?

HANSI LO WANG: This is a question that asks, is this person a citizen of the United States? The Trump administration wants to include it on forms to be asked of every household in the country next year. And the concern here is that Census Bureau research has shown that it's highly likely that including this question would depress participation in the census among households with noncitizens, and that includes some citizens. And it's important to remember the stakes here - if people don't participate in the census or not enough people, that affects the accuracy of census numbers that are used to draw voting districts at the state and local level after 2020.

And so far, three federal judges have blocked the citizenship question from being added. This issue is now at the Supreme Court. And all along, the administration has been saying that they wanted this question to better enforce Voting Rights Act's protections for racial and language minorities. What's interesting here is that these new documents, filed today by the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, suggests that Trump administration officials were aware that adding this question would reduce the political power of Latinx people.

CORNISH: So what are these documents? What exactly do they say?

WANG: Well, these are documents from the files of a major GOP redistricting strategist. His name is Thomas Hoffler. He died last year. And he was commissioned in 2015 to do a study about what could be done with a citizenship question, and he also concluded that adding a question about citizenship status on the census could ultimately help improve - boost the power of Republicans and nonwhite Hispanics through the redrawing of maps.

And then, also, these documents included a document that had a paragraph, word for word, that was included in a draft letter, requesting a citizenship question that the Trump administration used as part of its process of adding this question to the census forms. And the plaintiffs' attorneys here say that this is all evidence that suggests that Hoffler was involved in this push for a citizenship question, and that it was done to help benefit the Republicans.

CORNISH: Do we know why these documents are being released now?

WANG: You know, what's interesting is these documents, they - the attorneys obtained them through Hoffler's estranged daughter, who, after Hoffler died, she got hold of a hard drive, included his personal files. And this daughter happened to get connected with lawyers for another lawsuit on another case about a redistricting map, and the lawyers happened to be in the same law firm involved in the citizenship question lawsuits. And so the timing here is just how these documents came to light.

You know, it's important to keep in mind that we're weeks away from when the Supreme Court is expected to announce its decision on whether or not the Trump administration can add the citizenship question. And I should note, I have reached out to all the federal agencies involved in these cases - no responses so far on the record.

CORNISH: But to go back to something, how could today's news affect that Supreme Court ruling?

WANG: You know, we'll have to see. You know, so far, the judge in New York at a lower court has scheduled a hearing about all these issues on June 5. The plaintiffs' attorneys basically say that these documents showed the administration has concealed Hoffler's role in the citizenship question, this push for a citizenship question, and that administration officials may have provided misleading or - testimony or lied about Hoffler's role during their testimony for the lawsuits. And the attorneys have notified the Supreme Court about this hearing on June 5. We'll have to see how that might affect the Supreme Court's ruling, ultimately.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Hansi Lo Wang. Hansi, thank you for your reporting.

WANG: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.