US Postal Service mail carrier Thomas Russell holds a census form while working his route. US census advocates held a rally Saturday, April 10, 2010 at the Mas Jid Ash-Shaheed mosque in Charlotte, NC to convince people to fill out the 2010 census form. (AP Photo/Jason E. Miczek)
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The framers of the US constitution dreaded the politicisation of civic life. Even the bleaker among them, however, might not have guessed that one of the driest features of their document, which provides for a decennial census, would become the subject of partisan rancour. The next census of the world’s third largest population is scheduled for 2020. If Donald Trump’s administration has its way, it will be the first in 70 years to ask respondents if they are citizens of the country.

What might strike the outside world as an innocuous enough query, even a necessary one, is fraught. The US has lots of people who are not citizens, including as many as 11m undocumented migrants. If the question discourages them from answering the census, the state will lack a faithful picture of how many people are in the country, and whereabouts.

As a result, the provision of public services might fail to reflect demand on the ground. Parts of the US could also be under-represented in Congressional districting, as well as in the electoral college that decides the presidency. If Democrat-leaning Hispanics are undercounted, for example, it follows that the Republican party stands to profit.

As campaigners point out, the constitution requires the counting of all “persons”, not citizens. Some states, including California, have taken legal action against the decision to add the question. And even those who are unmoved by the high-minded arguments worry about the practical implications of an errant census. It might distort private sector as well as public sector behaviour. Businesses use fine-grain census data to judge where to locate and what to sell. It is the foundation on which so many secondary decisions are based, and for 10 years at a time.

It is the raw politics, though, that dominate the issue. Last week, a House committee held the attorney-general and the commerce secretary in contempt for not providing more information about why the question is being added. What the government has said is that it already exists elsewhere, namely in the American Community Survey, and is no great imposition in any case.

The trouble is that the citizenship question is not an isolated matter. It is bound up with congressional gerrymandering, allegations of voter-suppression and other trends that have brought the basic fairness of the political system into doubt.

There is a gathering view among Democrats that the Republicans are staving off long-run minority status with anti-majoritarian rules. Some of these are entirely legitimate.

The party has won the popular vote in presidential elections just once since the end of the cold war but scored three terms. Its Senate majority relies on the over-representation of sparse states: Wyoming’s 600,000 people have as many senators as California’s 40m. These are normal features of the constitution, even if they are no longer so uncontroversial.

But by exacerbating them with chicanery elsewhere, Republicans only encourage outright disillusion with the political order as a whole. They provoke Democrats to revisit, for example, the very idea of an electoral college, which some campaigners are trying to reform without a constitutional amendment. Yes, high principle argues against the inclusion of the citizenship question. But even out of naked self-interest, the GOP should scrap it to preserve trust in a system that treats the party rather kindly. Americans disagree enough on the substance of politics. A row over the rules of the game should be avoided.

Letter in response to this editorial comment:

The next US census is becoming a partisan issue / From James H Somers, New York, NY, US

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