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Critics of census citizenship question hold ‘conspiracy theories,’ House Republicans say

House Republicans are pushing back on what they’re calling Democrats’ “baseless conspiracy theories” about the origins of President Donald Trump’s efforts to include a citizenship question in the 2020 census.

Republicans on the House Oversight Committee, led by ranking member Jim Jordan of Ohio, released excerpts from non-public interview transcripts from the House Oversight Committee’s investigation into the decision to include the citizenship question in next year’s decennial census, something that has not been done in over 50 years.

Last week, the committee’s Democratic majority voted to hold Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt for not complying with its subpoenas regarding the citizenship questions. The Republican minority released the excepts as part of its defense of Ross.

Their release comes just days before the Supreme Court is expected to rule on a challenge to the inclusion of the citizenship question. The state of New York is leading the challenge before the court; California has filed a similar lawsuit contesting the census question.

The Oversight Committee’s Republicans argue that the Democrat-backed “contempt citation was premature, unnecessary, and designed to advance a partisan goal of influencing ongoing litigation presently before the Supreme Court of the United States.”

But the GOP document, itself, seeks to weigh in on the questions before the high court.

In particular, Jordan attempts to rebut the claim, made by Democrats in Congress as well as those challenging the citizenship question in court, that the genesis for inserting the citizenship question was a 2015 redistricting memo written by an influential North Carolina political consultant, Thomas Hofeller.

The Hofeller memo detailed how a citizenship question could suppress the population count in Democratic areas of North Carolina and the country. Those population counts are used to determine congressional representation. So a lower Democratic count would help Republicans redraw congressional districts in their favor.

Hofeller died in August 2018 but his estranged daughter discovered the documents and shared them with the North Carolina chapter of Common Cause, which was pursuing a related redistricting lawsuit. Lawyers for the plaintiffs in the census Supreme Court case only discovered the memo in recent weeks, but have seized on its content and communications Hofeller had with Trump administration officials as evidence of the political intent behind the move to add the question.

The same day Republicans released their response to the contempt citation, House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings sent a letter to Census Bureau Chief of Staff Christa Jones requesting an interview based on evidence that she used a private email address to communicate with Hofeller in 2015.

“You sent both emails from a personal email address, rather than your Census Bureau email address,” the Maryland Democrat said in the letter. “This use of personal email raises serious concerns and may be in violation of the Federal Records Act, which ensures that official government business is properly preserved and accessible to the American public.”

The states and cities seeking to remove the citizenship question have argued that Ross ordered the Census Bureau to include it with the aim of reducing the response rate among households with undocumented immigrants. That violates a number of federal laws, they claim, including the Administrative Procedure Act, which requires transparency in decisionmaking by federal officials.

Administration officials strongly dispute the suggestion that Hofeller’s memo influenced their decision. They argue it will help enforce the Voting Rights Act and note that the Census Bureau includes the question in other types of population surveys, although not in the questionnaire sent to the entire population.

Republican members of the Oversight Committee argue in the document released Tuesday that “The record before the Committee refutes and debunks the conspiracy claims surrounding Mr. Hofeller’s study.” Republican members point to testimony from senior officials at the Department of Commerce and Justice Department denying any contact with Hofeller.

The GOP response also seeks to downplay the role former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach had in adding the question to the census. Democrats have pointed to Kobach’s involvement as an area of concern, based on his hardline rhetoric on immigration and his record of championing stricter voting laws during his tenure in Kansas.

House Democrats released a portion of Kobach’s committee testimony earlier this month and accused the White House of interfering by instructing the former Kansas secretary of state not to answer questions related to conversations with Trump and senior White House officials.

The Democratic memo said Kobach’s argument that undocumented immigrants should be excluded from official population counts for legislative districts was “similar to the rationale set forth in a newly-discovered study by a Republican gerrymandering expert, Thomas Hofeller.”

But in the additional testimony released by Republicans, Kobach states that he had never spoken to Hofeller and had no knowledge of the study.

“I’ve never read any such study or heard of any such study,” the document quotes Kobach telling the committee during his closed door testimony on June 3.

Kobach also denied communicating with administration officials “who the Majority contends were central figures in the decision to add the citizenship question,” the GOP response states.

And the former Kansas secretary of state testified that “I don’t agree with his assumption that when you count – when you count accurately the number of citizens, that that necessarily helps one party or another party. We don’t know.”

In a 2018 interview with The Kansas City Star, Kobach said that he had pitched Trump on adding a citizenship question shortly after the inauguration. He alleged that certain states, specifically California, had their population counts inflated because of undocumented immigrants.

A number of demographers are predicting that the inclusion of a citizenship question will suppress responses from Hispanics, immigrants and non-citizens. That could have a particularly weighty impact on states like California and Texas, which have high rates of these so-called “hard-to-count” populations.

At stake is billions of dollars in federal funding, which are calculated using the census’ demographic information, as well as congressional representation. The country’s 435 congressional seats are apportioned based off census data. California’s slowing population growth already puts it at risk of losing a congressional seat in 2021.

Update: This story was updated to include news of the letter Rep. Cummings sent Christa Jones of the Census Bureau.