The 2020 count might be put in the hands of an inexperienced professor who wrote that ‘Competitive Elections are Bad for America.’
The fate of the census under President Donald Trump has been closely watched by voting-rights advocates worried that the administration might nudge it in directions that over- or undercount some Americans. | Carlos Osorio/AP
The Trump administration is leaning toward naming Thomas Brunell, a Texas professor with no government experience, to the top operational job at the U.S. Census Bureau, according to two people who have been briefed on the bureau’s plans.
Brunell, a political science professor, has testified more than half a dozen times on behalf of Republican efforts to redraw congressional districts, and is the author of a 2008 book titled “Redistricting and Representation: Why Competitive Elections Are Bad for America.”
The choice would mark the administration’s first major effort to shape the 2020 census, the nationwide count that determines which states lose and gain electoral votes and seats in the House of Representatives.
The fate of the census under President Donald Trump has been closely watched by voting-rights advocates worried that the administration — which has already made unsupported claims about voter fraud — might nudge it in directions that over- or undercount some Americans. Subtle bureaucratic choices in the wording and administration of the census can have huge consequences for who is counted, and how it shifts American voting districts.
The pick would break with the long-standing precedent of choosing a nonpolitical government official as deputy director of the U.S. Census Bureau. The job has typically been held by a career civil servant with a background in statistics. It does not require Senate confirmation, so Congress would have no power to block the hire.
“If true, it signals an effort by the administration to politicize the census,” said Terri Ann Lowenthal, former co-director of the Census Project, an organization that tracks the census. “It’s very troubling.”
Brunell was under consideration over the summer for the Senate-confirmable job of census director, but the administration declined to nominate him after receiving pushback from Capitol Hill, according to two people who track the census closely.
The White House and Census Bureau both referred comments to the Commerce Department, which oversees the bureau. The Commerce Department declined to comment. Brunell, reached by phone, declined to comment.
The hiring could be announced as soon as this week, though Trump administration personnel decisions often change at the last minute. One administration official said the situation remains “fluid.”
As deputy director of the Census Bureau, Brunell would become the highest-ranking permanent official at the agency. Though the deputy director technically reports to the census director, that slot is temporarily being filled by a career civil servant, since former director John Thompson resigned at the end of June. There is currently no nominee for a permanent director.
“This is worse than making him director,” said a former high-ranking Commerce Department official. “There still is going to be hell to pay on the optics. The Democrats and civil rights community will go nuts.”
Though it may seem like a dry bureaucratic task, the $16 billion decennial census has become the focus of hotly contested political arguments in a moment when the question of who counts as an American has risen to the top of the national debate.
The census attempts to count every person who lives within the U.S. borders, and Republicans have long sought to add a question asking respondents about their immigration status, including whether they are U.S. citizens. Democrats and many civil rights groups worry that adding a citizenship question would cause a huge drop in minority response rates, with recipients concerned about what the government would do with the information.
In January, a leaked draft of an executive order directed the Census Bureau to add such a question to the “long form” census, known as the American Community Survey, which is a longer, more detailed look at a subset of people living in the U.S. According to the two people who track the census closely, the administration is currently mulling a similar executive order.
So far, fears that the administration will complicate the census with a citizenship question have not panned out. Trump has not yet issued the order, and two senior administration officials said the issue is not yet being discussed at a high level in the West Wing. Wilbur Ross, the commerce secretary — who once worked as a census enumerator himself — has previously argued that adding questions to the decennial would reduce response rates.
But rumors about the hiring of Brunell have reignited those concerns. The deputy director is effectively the chief operating officer and chief financial officer at the Census Bureau, making Brunell a critical person as the agency gears up for the 2020 census. The position has been filled by a temporary career civil servant since former deputy director Nancy Potok left in early January to accept an Obama administration appointment as the country’s chief statistician.
Even a seasoned census hand would be stepping into a difficult job as deputy director now. For the past year, advocates and statistical experts have been warning that the missing top management at the agency and its underfunding by Congress could lead to an inaccurate count in 2020. The bureau is currently conducting its test run for the 2020 census, but it had to cancel components of the test due to limited funding. The agency has also delayed its regular economic census by six months due to funding shortages.
Census-watchers were also upset at the Trump administration’s 2018 budget request for the Census Bureau, which was just 7 percent above its 2017 level. The bureau typically requires — and receives — a huge bump in funding as the decennial approaches, since it must hire tens of thousands of people and open dozens of field offices nationwide. In a rare move, the Trump administration publicly admitted that the bureau’s 2018 budget was too low when Ross asked Congress in October for an additional $187 million, above the administration’s $1.5 billion request.
Brunell’s background makes him an unusual choice for the deputy director role. Based on his published curriculum vitae, he appears to have little experience in federal statistics or at managing a big organization, both characteristics that census-watchers believe are vital for the job. In comparison, Potok, his predecessor, spent most of her career at the Census Bureau.
“It’s quite a difference going from an academic setting to the Census Bureau,” said a person who has worked with Brunell, who asked for anonymity to speak freely about him. “I don’t think he’s done the administrative work that would be needed to be at a high level in a large organization like the Census Bureau.”
Brunell received a Ph.D. in political science from the University of California Irvine in 1997 and worked briefly on Capitol Hill as a fellow on a House subcommittee that oversees the census. Since 2005, he has worked at the University of Texas at Dallas, where his research and writing has focused on redistricting and voting rights cases. He has frequently advised states on redrawing their congressional maps. In his 2008 book, “Redistricting and Representation,” he argued that partisan districts packed with like-minded voters actually lead to better representation than ones more evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, because fewer voters in partisan districts cast a vote for a losing candidate. He has also argued that ideologically packed districts should be called “fair districts” and admits that his stance on competitive elections makes him something of an outlier among political scientists, who largely support competitive elections.
Brunell, a registered Republican, has criticized partisan gerrymandering in his work. But the GOP has repeatedly used his research in redistricting efforts, and he appeared as an expert witness to defend GOP-led states in lawsuits over potential gerrymandering. After the 2010 census, he testified or wrote a report in support of GOP redistricting efforts in Alabama, South Dakota, South Carolina and New Mexico.
In North Carolina, where GOP leaders drew congressional districts that were ultimately overturned by the Supreme Court for unfairly discriminating against black North Carolinians, he wrote a report on behalf of the state analyzing the extent of racially polarized voting in 51 North Carolina districts. In Ohio, he wrote a report in opposition to expanded early voting, which many political scientists believe favors Democrats, arguing that it reduces overall turnout because it “takes away from Election Day as a civic event.”
Brunell’s research has also tackled the census itself. In the early 2000s, he wrote multiple papers on the political controversy surrounding the 2000 census, which included new statistical adjustments intended to more accurately count minorities and other groups that are relatively less likely to respond to the census. Republicans argued that the new techniques were a veiled effort to boost the Democrats’ political fortunes; Brunell was sharply critical of them as well, arguing that “a census with an adjustment ultimately leads to a less accurate headcount simply because the post-census adjustment becomes a crutch.”
If Brunell is installed in a top Census Bureau job, “there are tons of little things he could be doing to influence what the final count looks like,” said the former high-ranking Commerce official. “The ripple effect on reapportionment would be astounding.”
Many of those decisions would be less visible, or even invisible, to the public. Brunell, for instance, would oversee the agency’s advertising budget, which is essential to persuading groups like undocumented immigrants to respond to the decennial. The agency is set to
spend more than $400 million over the next few years on those advertisements, and decisions about how and where to spend those dollars will be key to getting an accurate count.
Brunell’s background also indicates that the White House is heavily focused on the political outcomes of a survey that is primarily supposed to gather objective data about the country. Since 1790, the decennial and the long-form census, along with other products produced by the agency, have been a primary source of rich and objective data for use by researchers. Beyond its impact on elections, the decennial census directs the destination of hundreds of billions of dollars of federal funds each year. Brunell’s résumé, however, does not indicate that he has any expertise or experience with those elements of the agency’s mission.
The selection of an outsider represents something of an unprecedented break with past leadership of the bureau. Thompson, the previous director, was nominated byPresident Barack Obama but had previously spent 27 years working as a career civil servant at the agency. Thompson’s predecessor, Robert Groves, was also an Obama appointee. He had worked as a civil servant at the bureau in the 1990s.
“It is imperative that the Census Bureau’s leadership be viewed by the public and by lawmakers as completely nonpartisan,” said Lowenthal. “If either the director or the deputy director bring partisan baggage to their position, public confidence in the integrity of the census could plummet. So could congressional confidence. And it is Congress that must accept the apportionment results. All this stuff worries me.”