Protect Democracy Sues Trump Administration for Documents on Census Strategy

  • November 29, 2017

On November 27, 2017, Protect Democracy filed suit against the Trump Administration for documents related to their plans for the 2020 Census, following up on the refusal of the Commerce Department and the Office of Management and Budget to comply with FOIA requests filed on May 22, 2017.

Read the Complaint.

The U.S. Constitution mandates that a census be conducted every ten years, and the next decennial census is in 2020. The decennial census provides the government and the public with vital information on the composition and state of the American people. Critically for our democracy, it also serves as the basis for allocating Congressional representation amongst the states. Many federal and state programs determine funding formulas based on census data. The census has therefore historically and rightly been conducted on an independent basis by non-political, professional staff, highly insulated from the Department of Commerce.

On May 22, 2017, Protect Democracy submitted freedom of information requests, in the aftermath of the surprising resignation of the career official who was running the census.  Those requests sought information on, among other things, communications between political officials in the White House and the Commerce Department and the Census Bureau about the upcoming census.

Further cause for concern about the independence and integrity of the census arose last week when news came that President Trump was considering appointing Thomas Brunell, author of Redistricting and Representation: Why Competitive Elections Are Bad for America, as deputy director of the Census Bureau, the top operational post.  As a professor who has spent much of his career advocating for distorted election-engineering, Brunell would be a break from the history of appointing directors who have not engaged in partisan politics, and unlike past holders of this post, lacks any relevant experience in managing one of the most sweeping bureaucratic tasks of the federal government.  

Any politicization of the Census, including the content of the 2020 Census, poses a grave danger to core democratic principles: an independent civil service, neutral information to the public and government decision-makers, and the conducting of free and fair elections.

The results of the Census–including the ability of people to participate in the process–can be shaped in profound ways by subtle changes in the wording of questions.  And indeed, draft executive orders have been circulating for months that would alter questions in a manner that could tilt the census’ results to benefit the President and his party politically.  

Protect Democracy is filing this suit because the American people deserve transparency into how this core democratic function is being executed, and deserve to know whether any improper interference is happening to distort the results for political ends.

Update July 11, 2018:

Protect Democracy has continued to use FOIA to investigate improper political interference with the content and conduct of the 2020 Census. On July 10, 2018, Protect Democracy filed two related FOIA suits against the Trump Administration.

The first is against the Department of Commerce and the Census Bureau for documents related to Census employees’ reported internal dissent to the addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 Census. That complaint is available here. The second is against six federal agencies for documents related to communications from the Trump campaign, and affiliated organizations individuals, regarding the addition of a citizenship question. The second complaint is available here.

In addition to filing these two lawsuits, on July 11, 2018 Protect Democracy appealed the Department of Justice Division of Civil Rights (“DOJ CRT”) denial of a FOIA request seeking communications between that division and the Trump Campaign regarding the addition of a citizenship question. Our appeal, including the original FOIA request, is available here.

Protect Democracy is represented in both cases, and in its administrative appeal, by Dechert, LLP. This page will be updated as we receive production.