AMERICA’S ten-yearly census does not usually arouse much excitement. As Aaron Sorkin, a renowned screenwriter, is supposed to have put it: “You just say the word ‘census’ and people fall asleep.” Not so now. On March 26th the United States Department of Commerce announced that the country’s next census in 2020 would ask respondents if they are American citizens. The reaction from state attorneys general was swift. Just a few hours later Xavier Becerra, California’s attorney general, sued the department over its decision stating that California “simply has too much to lose to allow the Trump administration to botch this important decennial obligation.” The next day, Eric Schneiderman, New York’s attorney general, announced he would lead a multi-state effort against the question. Why all the fuss?    

The census is used to determine a panoply of things, such as Congressional representation and distribution of federal funding. States and municipalities also rely on accurate population counts to determine how to apportion disaster relief, how to approach infrastructure projects, and how to manage other services including schools, public-health assistance and emergency services. In an eight-page memo the Commerce Department insisted that asking people about their citizenship would allow the government to construct a fuller picture of the eligible voting population. This, in turn, the memo states, will make it easier to enforce the Voting Rights Act, a law meant to protect minorities against discrimination when casting their ballots. The memo also pointed out that a question about citizenship was standard practice until 1950 (when it was dropped because it was deemed irrelevant) and is still included in the American Community Survey, which looks each year at samples of people in America.

The census is technically anonymous and people can elect to skip the citizenship question. But civil-rights groups and politicians in blue states insist that a question about citizenship will dissuade undocumented immigrants from participating, for fear of being targeted for deportation. Dale Ho of the American Civil Liberties Union wrote: “The Trump administration’s decision to include a question on citizenship in the 2020 census is disastrous. It will severely undermine the accuracy of the census count, particularly in communities of colour, which will lose representation and federal resources as a result.” California is estimated to have over 3m undocumented residents, so the impact on its funding of reduced participation in the census could be severe. New York, with an estimated 850,000 undocumented residents, would also be severely affected. Mr Schneiderman said New York stood to lose “billions”. 

States have long used litigation to resist federal policies. In 2007 a cohort of 12 Democratic attorneys general sued George W. Bush’s administration with the aim of forcing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate greenhouse gases. Analysis by the Texas Tribune suggests Texas sued the Obama administration at least 48 times during his presidency. But the combination of a Republican-dominated Congress and a belligerent Republican president has spurred Democratic attorneys general to even more activity. Since Mr Trump assumed the presidency, California’s Mr Becerra has sued the administration over 25 times on issues ranging from birth control to the border wall. Mr Schneiderman of New York has been even more litigious: by the end of 2017, he had already sued the administration 100 times. While the future of the census count is uncertain, one statistic is clear: the number of lawsuits against Mr Trump will continue to rise.