The Trump administration’s signaled that it’s ready to fill a key Census Bureau vacancy in advance of the 2020 census. It’s tempting to think that it’d be hard to infuse something purportedly objective—census-taking, statistics—with partisanship. Normally, administrations appoint a nonpartisan, career civil servant to the position of deputy director. Not Trump.
[Thomas] Brunell, a registered Republican, has no prior government experience and a deeply partisan background. He has testified or produced expert reports for Republicans in more than a dozen redistricting cases and has defended new voting restrictions passed by Republicans. His 2008 book, Redistricting and Representation: Why Competitive Elections Are Bad for America, argued that extreme partisan gerrymandering should be the norm because, he claimed, ultra-safe blue or red districts offered better representation for voters than competitive ones.
Why get exercised over the deputy director position?
First, it’s the deputy director, whose appointment doesn’t require Senate confirmation, who runs the decennial census. Census numbers determine how federal funding and political representation are allocated.
Second, it looks like Trump is trying to make an end run around the Senate confirmation process for the director position by slotting Brunell into the deputy role and having him serve as acting director indefinitely. This is illegal in several ways. In addition to it being impermissible to bypass the Senate, appointing a director is mandatory, the Vacancies Reform Act limits acting directors to 210 days of service, and Brunell doesn’t meet the legally specified requirements to run the Census Bureau.
Brunell’s not just a Republican, not just an accomplished gerrymanderer, he’s a notorious gerrymanderer. He drew the now infamous North Carolina redistricting maps that inspired some of the most pointed language I’ve ever seen in a federal judicial opinion.
With the new maps in effect, Republicans controlled 10 of the state’s 13 congressional districts after the 2014 election and had a supermajority in the Legislature. But in 2017, federal courts struck down two of North Carolina’s congressional districts and 28 state legislative districts, calling the state maps “among the largest racial gerrymanders ever encountered by a federal court.” A unanimous three-judge court in North Carolina said Brunell’s “generalized conclusions regarding racially polarized voting” demonstrated a “misunderstanding” of the Voting Rights Act and “fail to demonstrate a strong basis in evidence justifying the challenged districts as drawn.”
Some additional background on Brunell from an actual redistricting expert:
Having someone openly hostile to fair maps and accurate counts at the helm for the census would be disastrous. Even under the Obama administration, the census undercounted primarily Democratic-voting populations.
The 2010 census failed to count 2.1 percent of African Americans, 1.5 percent of Hispanics, and 4.9 percent of Native Americans living on reservations, while overcounting whites by nearly 1 percent. These errors gave Republican areas more power, representation, and resources than they deserved, and gave Democratic ones less. In California, for example, the census failed to count 1.5 million residents, costing the state $1.7 billion in annual federal funding and depriving it of at least one congressional district.
After significant budget cuts, and as a result of various Trump policies, the 2020 census would have been even less accurate even without Brunell.
This undercount of Democratic and minority areas is likely to be much worse in 2020 than in previous years because of budget cuts, a reliance on internet responses, and fears among undocumented immigrants that the Census Bureau will share their personal information with the Department of Homeland Security to initiate deportation proceedings.
So 2020 may be the year that Republicans’ fondest survey instrument-related wish comes true: They’ve been lobbying to add a citizenship question to the census for years, and now the Justice Department has formally asked the Census Bureau to do so. Indications are that Trump may back Sessions’ request with an executive order.
A draft executive order by the Trump administration proposed adding a question about US citizenship to the census form, which would dramatically depress responses among immigrant communities. In December, the Justice Department wrote to the Census Bureau and requested that such a citizenship question be added.
Whatever Brunell does, if appointed, whatever his footprint on redistricting and representation, there won’t be a chance to correct it until 2030, which means Democrats will have to run against it until then.