- Ari Bermansenior writer at Mother Jones, reporting fellow at the Type Media Center and author of Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America.
Newly surfaced documents reveal that a now-dead senior Republican strategist who specialized in gerrymandering was secretly behind the Trump administration’s efforts to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census. The New York Times broke the story last week in an article that called Thomas Hofeller the “Michelangelo of gerrymandering.” When Hofeller died last August, he left behind a computer hard drive full of his notes and records. Hofeller’s estranged daughter found among the documents a 2015 study that said adding the citizenship question to the census “would be advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic whites” and “would clearly be a disadvantage to the Democrats.” Census officials estimate 6.5 million people will not respond to the census if the citizenship question is added. This undercount could affect everything from the redrawing of congressional maps to the allocation of federal funding. We get an update from Ari Berman, senior writer at Mother Jones, whose new piece is “Architect of GOP Gerrymandering Was Behind Trump’s Census Citizenship Question.”
AMY GOODMAN: Newly surfaced documents have revealed that a now-dead senior Republican strategist who specialized in gerrymandering was secretly behind the Trump administration’s efforts to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census. The New York Times broke the story last week in a story that called Thomas Hofeller the “Michelangelo of gerrymandering.” When Hofeller died last August, he left behind a computer hard drive full of his notes and records. His estranged daughter found among the documents a 2015 study that said adding the citizenship question to the census would, quote, “be advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic whites” and “would clearly be a disadvantage to the Democrats,” unquote.
Census officials estimate six-and-a-half million people will not respond to the census if the citizenship question is added. This undercount could affect everything from the redrawing of congressional maps to the allocation of federal funding.
In a court filing Thursday, plaintiffs challenging the citizenship question accused two Trump administration officials of falsely testifying under oath about the Justice Department’s motivations for altering the census. The Supreme Court is also set to rule within weeks on whether Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross had the authority to add the citizenship question to the census.
For more, we’re joined by Ari Berman, senior writer at Mother Jones, a reporting fellow at The Nation Institute, author of Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America. His new piece is headlined “Architect of GOP Gerrymandering Was Behind Trump’s Census Citizenship Question.”
Ari Berman, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. So, lay out this exposé.
ARI BERMAN: Good to see you again, Amy.
So, this is really startling smoking-gun evidence in the census case that really undercuts why the Trump administration added this question. So, the Trump administration added the citizenship question, and they claimed it was needed to better enforce the Voting Rights Act. Well, these new documents from Tom Hofeller show that it was not needed to enforce the Voting Rights Act, and, in fact, the people that would be most harmed by the addition of the citizenship question—Latinos and other racial minorities—are the very groups the Voting Rights Act was designed to protect.
And it clearly shows that this question was added to benefit the Republican Party, particularly white Republicans, because Tom Hofeller says in this unpublished study, that is now key evidence in this case, this would be clearly a disadvantage to Democrats and an advantage to Republicans.
So there you have it. I mean, this is really black and white. You can’t get any more explicit than this. We now know for certain this is why the question was added to the census.
AMY GOODMAN: And talk about how we know this. Talk about Hofeller’s estranged daughter.
ARI BERMAN: Well, it’s a pretty wild story. So, there’s a separate case in North Carolina challenging the gerrymandering of state legislative districts. Tom Hofeller has been the go-to expert in the Republican Party for decades on redistricting. He has drawn some of the most extreme gerrymandered maps in places like North Carolina. And so, there’s a case challenging this map in North Carolina. And after Hofeller passed away, his daughter found hard drives with all of his work, and she gave it over to the plaintiffs challenging these gerrymandered—
AMY GOODMAN: Gave it to Common Cause, right?
ARI BERMAN: Gave it to Common Cause and other plaintiffs challenging the gerrymandering in North Carolina. Now some of this evidence has now become public. There is more here, too, by the way, Amy. We’re going to learn more about the role that Tom Hofeller has played in gerrymandering efforts in other cases. But this pertains directly to the census case.
AMY GOODMAN: So, The New York Times calls him the “Michelangelo of gerrymandering.” Talk about his whole history and also how this could have legal bearing, and even going to the issue of the Supreme Court making a decision about Wilbur Ross adding the question, the citizenship question in the census.
ARI BERMAN: So, Tom Hofeller is not a household name, but he’s been an extremely influential person in the Republican Party for decades. He has basically been the Republican Party’s go-to guy when it comes to redistricting. So he’s traveled, since the 1980s, state after state after state, drawn maps to boost Republican representation.
And a lot of these maps, particularly after the 2010 election, have been struck down in court. So, really gerrymandered maps he drew in places like North Carolina and Ohio have been invalidated by the courts. In fact, the North Carolina congressional map that Hofeller drew was invalidated by the Supreme Court in an opinion written by Clarence Thomas, who found that it was an unconstitutional racial gerrymandering. So even Clarence Thomas thought that the maps that Hofeller was drawing were too extreme.
And the fact that you had the architect of GOP gerrymandering drawing up the census citizenship question is so startling, Amy, because the census forms the basis for redistricting. So we have to have [a fair and accurate] census data to be able to draw fair districts. If we have skewed census data, that’s going to lead to skewed districts. So, even before they start the gerrymandering itself, they’re essentially gerrymandering the census to give themselves an advantage.
AMY GOODMAN: So, in the ’90s, Thomas Hofeller led the Republican effort to oppose using statistical sampling to gain a more accurate count of nonwhite populations that the Census Bureau tended to miss. At the time, Hofeller wrote, quote, “A census that uses sampling and statistical adjustment will be the biggest victory for big government liberalism since the enactment of the Great Society.” I want to go to Hofeller speaking in 2001 at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
THOMAS HOFELLER: Elisabeth Kübler-Ross wrote a book, On Death and Dying. Her five steps, I believe, can be applied to redistricting. And you can pick the people to whom they apply in the order in which they apply to those people. And those steps are—first is denial: “It couldn’t happen to me”; the next step is bargaining: “Maybe I can make a deal”; the next step is anger—none of us have ever experienced that in a redistricting process; next is depression; and, finally, acceptance. So, you might look at that, and maybe she’ll write a new book on redistricting grieving.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Thomas Hofeller comparing redistricting to death. Ari Berman?
ARI BERMAN: Well, I mean, it is funny, because, I mean, redistricting has led to political deaths, if you think about what they’re doing in places like North Carolina. They’re trying to maximize Republican advantage. And basically, Hofeller is saying his goal with the census is to draw districts—it’s a little technical, Amy, but his goal with the census is to draw districts basically only counting citizens. So, for now and for decades, the way districts have been drawn is you count everybody. Everyone is entitled to representation, whether they are a voter or not, a citizen or not. What he’s saying is, we only want to draw districts counting citizens.
What that means is that white Republicans will get a massive overadvantage. They’ll get a huge boost in representation. And minority areas, where there are a lot of immigrants, they will receive less representation. So, if this citizenship questions is on the census, it will lead to a huge transfer of power to whiter and more Republican areas. And Hofeller has stated that explicitly. And that’s why the citizenship question was added to the census.
AMY GOODMAN: Ari, you write, “[M]embers of Trump’s team may not have been fully forthcoming in their testimony under oath. Neither Trump transition team member Mark Neuman nor John Gore, the former assistant attorney general for civil rights who wrote the Justice Department letter, mentioned Hofeller’s involvement in the letter when they were deposed under oath as part of a lawsuit by New York and 17 other states challenging the citizenship question.”
ARI BERMAN: Yeah, so, the ACLU and other plaintiffs challenging the census citizenship question are trying to sanction these former Trump officials for lying under oath to conceal Tom Hofeller’s involvement in this case. There’s going to be a hearing in federal court in New York this week. And the big question is: Will this make its way to the Supreme Court? And will it matter? I mean, this case is going to be ruled on in a matter of weeks. The justices have likely already written their opinions. So, this is all very last-minute. And this evidence really, really undercuts the Trump administration’s claims of why they added this question. However, it still remains unclear whether this is going have any impact on the Supreme Court itself.