How the Supreme Court’s decision on the census citizenship question could affect representation in Texas

The U.S. Supreme Court could soon alter the political future of Texas when it decides whether the Trump administration can ask about citizenship on the upcoming census.

The administration pushed to add the question, citing it as a tool it needs to enforce the federal Voting Rights Act. But demographers and civil rights organizations have warned that immigrants and their families will be too afraid to respond to a government questionnaire that asks about citizenship status. And the U.S. Census Bureau’s own analysis shows including the question could lead to an undercount of Hispanics and noncitizens.

Such an undercount in the once-a-decade census would come with serious repercussions for a state like Texas, where the number of noncitizens has helped grow the state’s political clout.

In reality, the noncitizen population is distributed across the state. Without it, Texas wouldn’t have the 36 congressional districts it was assigned after the last census — a process known as reapportionment that’s based on total population. And various projections show that an undercount tied to the citizenship question could cost Texas at least one of the three congressional seats it’s expected to gain thanks to the massive growth the state has experienced since 2010.

There’s no way of knowing exactly how severe an undercount could be with or without the citizenship question. But most analyses of possible undercounts have designated Texas — long considered hard to count — as high risk for the upcoming census.

Estimates show that noncitizens live in every single congressional district in the state, and they make up a sizable slice of the population in some Republican-held districts. For example, noncitizens make up nearly 15% of the population of Congressional District 24, which stretches west from northwestern Dallas into Tarrant and Denton counties and is currently represented by Republican Kenny Marchant.

But an undercount would be felt the most in traditionally Democratic areas of the state, where noncitizens make up between 9% and 26% of districts held by Democrats.

If noncitizens are missed in the count, the boundaries of those Democratic districts would have to greatly expand to meet constitutional population requirements for redistricting. If Texas Republicans remain in control of the redrawing after the 2020 elections, those boundary changes could be used to pull in Democratic voters from neighboring districts to shore up Republican-held districts that would not see similar drops in population.

Those changes could be the sharpest in the state House, where the distribution of noncitizens is particularly lopsided.

In state House District 137, currently represented by Democrat Gene Wu, noncitizens make up a whopping 39.5% of the total population.

In a quarter of districts currently represented by Democrats, at least 1 in 5 residents are noncitizens. That’s only the case in one Republican district — House District 138 in the Houston area, which Republican Dwayne Bohac narrowly won in 2018.

The Supreme Court’s term is expected to end next week, so a ruling could be imminent, though some of the plaintiffs challenging the inclusion of the question asked the court to consider putting off a decision so a lower court could review new evidence that recently emerged in the case.

Among those records was a 2015 analysis of the Texas House showing how drawing legislative districts using the population of citizens who are of voting age, as opposed to total population, would clearly be “advantageous to Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites.”

That sort of redrawing could not be achieved without asking about citizenship on the census.

Correction: A previous version of this story included incorrect information about Congressional District 24.

The code we ran for our analysis on noncitizens in Texas’ political districts is available on Github.