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Supreme Court: Accuracy at core of census question

WASHINGTON — Justice Elena Kagan’s father was 3 years old when the census taker came to the family’s apartment on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, New York, on April 10, 1930.

Robert Kagan was initially wrongly listed as an “alien,” though he was a native-born New Yorker. The entry about his citizenship status appears to have been crossed out on the census form.

Vast changes in America and technology have dramatically altered the way the census is conducted. But the accuracy of the once-a-decade population count is at the heart of the Supreme Court case over the Trump administration’s effort to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

The justices are hearing arguments in the case on Tuesday, with a decision due by late June that will allow for printing forms in time for the count in April 2020.

The fight over the census question is the latest over immigration-related issues between Democratic-led states and advocates for immigrants, on one side, and the administration, on the other. The Supreme Court last year upheld President Donald Trump’s ban on visitors to the U.S. from several mostly Muslim countries. The court also has temporarily blocked administration plans to make it harder for people to claim asylum and is considering an administration appeal that would allow Trump to end protections for immigrants who were brought to this country as children.

The citizenship question has not been asked on the census form sent to every American household since 1950.

The administration’s desire to add it is now rife with political implications and partisan division.

Federal judges in California, Maryland and New York have blocked the administration from going forward with a citizenship question after crediting the analysis of Census Bureau experts who found that a question would damage the overall accuracy of the census and cause millions of Hispanics and immigrants to go uncounted. That, in turn, would cost several states seats in the U.S. House and billions of dollars in federal dollars that are determined by census results.

The three judges have rejected the administration’s arguments that asking about citizenship won’t harm accuracy and that the information is needed to help enforce provisions of the federal Voting Rights Act.

The Census Bureau’s consistent view since the 1960 census has been that asking everyone about citizenship “would produce a less accurate population count,” five former agency directors who served in Democratic and Republic administrations wrote in a court brief.

No population count is perfect, and census designers strive to create a questionnaire that is clear and easy to answer.

In older censuses, a government worker known as an enumerator would visit households and record information. In modern times, people fill in their own forms on paper or electronically.