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Exclusive: The would-be U.S. census director assails critics of citizenship question

Tom Brunell

University of Texas in Dallas

President Donald Trump’s first choice to be director of the U.S. Census Bureau strongly endorses the administration’s controversial decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

Speaking publicly for the first time, Thomas Brunell, a professor of political science at the University of Texas in Dallas, tells ScienceInsider that critics—including the six previous Census Bureau directors—have exaggerated the potential problems that could arise from including the question. Brunell, who earlier this year withdrew from consideration for the deputy director’s post at the Census Bureau, also believes that the nation’s largest statistical agency has a duty to carry out the political agenda of its White House bosses.

“I’m agnostic on whether [the citizenship question] is needed,” Brunell says. “I think the critical point is that the administration wants to put it on there. They have made a political decision. And they have every right to do that, because they won the election.” In March, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross approved a request from the Department of Justice (DOJ) for such a question; the department says it needs the data to enforce voting rights laws.

Brunell, 50, interrupted his academic career in the late 1990s to spend a year in Washington, D.C., as a congressional fellow working on census issues. He has also served as an expert witness in court cases challenging state redistricting decisions, typically in support of plans developed by Republicans. In 2008, he published a book with the provocative thesis that competitive elections are bad for the country because they leave a large proportion of “losing” voters unhappy with their elected officials.

Although he has no experience leading large organizations, Brunell was in line 1 year ago to be Trump’s pick to lead the Census Bureau. The vacancy was created by the departure last June of John Thompson, who had been appointed by former President Barack Obama. But Senator Claire McCaskill (D–MO), the top Democrat on the committee with jurisdiction over the agency, reportedly raised objections to having Brunell fill the 5-year term.

White House officials then proposed that Brunell become the agency’s deputy director, a position that does not require Senate confirmation and one traditionally held by a career civil servant. But that idea also generated strong pushback from the statistics community and in February, Brunell



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