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Tom Brunell

University of Texas in Dallas

Exclusive: The would-be U.S. census director assails critics of citizenship question

President Donald Trump’s first choice to be director of the U.S. Census Bureau strongly endorses the administration’s controversial decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

Speaking publicly for the first time, Thomas Brunell, a professor of political science at the University of Texas in Dallas, tells ScienceInsider that critics—including the six previous Census Bureau directors—have exaggerated the potential problems that could arise from including the question. Brunell, who earlier this year withdrew from consideration for the deputy director’s post at the Census Bureau, also believes that the nation’s largest statistical agency has a duty to carry out the political agenda of its White House bosses.

“I’m agnostic on whether [the citizenship question] is needed,” Brunell says. “I think the critical point is that the administration wants to put it on there. They have made a political decision. And they have every right to do that, because they won the election.” In March, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross approved a request from the Department of Justice (DOJ) for such a question; the department says it needs the data to enforce voting rights laws.

Brunell, 50, interrupted his academic career in the late 1990s to spend a year in Washington, D.C., as a congressional fellow working on census issues. He has also served as an expert witness in court cases challenging state redistricting decisions, typically in support of plans developed by Republicans. In 2008, he published a book with the provocative thesis that competitive elections are bad for the country because they leave a large proportion of “losing” voters unhappy with their elected officials.

Although he has no experience leading large organizations, Brunell was in line 1 year ago to be Trump’s pick to lead the Census Bureau. The vacancy was created by the departure last June of John Thompson, who had been appointed by former President Barack Obama. But Senator Claire McCaskill (D–MO), the top Democrat on the committee with jurisdiction over the agency, reportedly raised objections to having Brunell fill the 5-year term.

White House officials then proposed that Brunell become the agency’s deputy director, a position that does not require Senate confirmation and one traditionally held by a career civil servant. But that idea also generated strong pushback from the statistics community and in February, Brunell threw in the towel.

Brunell declined to provide details about his failed attempt to join the Trump administration. But he spoke freely about the current controversy surrounding the citizenship question, offering counterarguments to those who worry about its likely impact on response rates and on the agency’s reputation for impartiality.

“I think adding any question to the decennial census is problematic,” he says. “Asking people their favorite color will decrease response rates,” he says. “So the fewer questions on the census, the better. But in terms of adding this question, I think the people who oppose it have made it a much bigger issue than it really is.”

Brunell repeated arguments by Ross and DOJ officials that the question has appeared for more than a decade on the American Community Survey, which replaced the long form of the decennial census, and on the census itself through 1950. “To say that asking it will absolutely ruin the census, I don’t see that,” he says. “I think that is hyperbolic, and that talking that way doesn’t help matters.”

One point on which Brunell and the critics agree is that a successful 2020 census will probably cost more than the $15.6 billion price tag that Ross announced last fall. But Brunell doesn’t think that will be a show-stopper.

“Even if the question convinces people not to answer the census form, that’s not the end of the story,” he says. The biggest cost in conducting the census, he notes, comes from following up with households that did not respond to repeated reminders to fill out the questionnaire.

That follow-up “may be a little bit harder and more expensive to do,” he says, “because there will be a couple of million more people they need to count. So the Census Bureau hires more people, and Congress ponies up the money, and they bang on more doors to get the answers they need. They may need to scramble, but they will get the job done.”

A bigger challenge for the agency, Brunell says, is finding a way to tone down the heated rhetoric over the citizenship question. The furor, he says, is symptomatic of the increasingly bitter partisanship in Washington, D.C.

“That’s what we need to fix, this level of polarization,” he asserts. “Instead of thinking, ‘Our team lost the election, what are we going to do?’ it should be, ‘Well, our team lost, but we’ll get ‘em next time.’ Not everything is life and death.”