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Democrats and Republicans agree that adding a citizenship question would render the census inaccurate. Mike Blake/Reuters

Across political persuasions, a majority of Americans are convinced that adding a citizen question will render the 2020 census inaccurate.

The U.S. Supreme Court will decide in April whether the Trump administration can make good on its plans to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census. But Americans are already resolved on the matter: Overwhelming majorities from across the political spectrum agree that a citizenship question could negatively affect the accuracy of next year’s census efforts.  

Three-quarters (76 percent) of Americans say that adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census is at least somewhat likely to mess up the count, according to a new poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and The Atlantic. And a majority of Americans (53 percent) think it is very likely that the census will not get an accurate count if the Trump administration adds a citizenship question.

The poll results reveal broad, shared, bipartisan concerns about the state of the 2020 census. Overwhelming majorities of Democrats (77 percent), Republicans (81 percent), and independents (71 percent) say that it is somewhat likely that the question will diminish the accuracy of the census. The share of Republicans who say that it is very likely that a citizenship question will negatively affect the census is close to half (48 percent).

While fears that a citizenship question will affect the count are widespread, there’s less consensus about how the citizenship question will be used. About one-quarter (26 percent) of Americans think that that question will be used solely for the purposes of counting the population. Mayors and community leaders are working hard in the run-up to the census to convince their constituents, especially immigrant populations, that this is the case. They have their work cut out for them: One-third (33 percent) of Americans believe that the government will use the data to check on the immigration status of individuals; 41 percent said they didn’t know or didn’t answer.

There is a racial gap in answers about the citizenship question: 55 percent of black respondents said that adding Trump’s citizenship question would threaten the accuracy of the census, compared to 75 percent of Hispanic respondents. White respondents (82 percent) were most likely to register this concern.

The poll lines up with some of the internal concerns registered by the U.S. Census Bureau. In January, the agency released its 2020 Census Barriers, Attitudes, and Motivators Study Survey, a huge nationwide study that the bureau uses to develop its strategy for reaching specific demographic groups, especially hard-to-count populations. News of the citizenship question broke while surveyors were conducting the survey, however, so it doesn’t reflect attitudes toward the citizenship question. Still, focus groups convened as part of this push did address the news—and their attitudes toward the citizenship question were mostly negative.

Focus groups, regardless of their demographic makeup, thought the citizenship question would be used to find undocumented immigrants, even if it wouldn’t necessarily affect them. (U.S. Census Bureau)

“The barrier was highest among those individuals who believed that the purpose of the question is to find undocumented immigrants, that their information will be shared across agencies—potentially leading to deportation—and that their ethnic group is facing an inhospitable political environment,” reads the final focus group rerport. “As one [Middle Eastern–North African] participant stated, ‘[The information from a citizenship question would be used] to figure out who they’ve got to kick out… I’m being dead serious.’”

In the case of the focus groups, respondents were largely concerned for people other than themselves; most participants were U.S. citizens. Across all demographic audiences, most participants told the Census Bureau surveyors that they thought the purpose of the citizenship question was to deport undocumented people. And most participants also singled out the citizenship question as different, owing to its “legal aspect and consequences.”

These findings align with the foremost worry that the Census Bureau works to overcome, decade after decade, as it prepares for the decennial count: the fear among Americans that their personal data will be used by the government for other reasons.

It’s a fear that unites Americans. The PRRI/The Atlantic 2019 Pluralism Survey finds broad divides between the left and right on the issues of gun control laws, a $15 minimum wage, and allowing immigrants brought into the U.S. as children to gain legal resident status. Only a limited set of issues—including protecting healthcare for those with pre-existing conditions and eliminating mandatory minimum prison sentences for nonviolent offenders—appear to draw consensus in America. Growing anxiety about the 2020 census appears to be one of them.  

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