Thomas Brunell is a professor at the University of Texas at Dallas who once wrote a book titled “Redistricting and Representation: Why Competitive Elections Are Bad for America.” In its pages, he argues against having a healthy mix of Democrats and Republicans in a voting district—packing the politically like-minded into their own voting districts would lead to higher approval ratings and happier voters. It is a stance opposite that of many preeminent political scientists, and Brunell has taken his beliefs to court as an expert witness in a dozen cases. Most were related to gerrymandering, which Brunell has criticized. However, he has testified on behalf of Republican legislatures that have been challenged over the redrawing of districts.
Why tell you all this: According to Politico, Brunell is also the man who President Donald Trump is “leaning toward” appointing to be the deputy director of the U.S. Census Bureau. It does not require a Senate confirmation, and, because the census currently lacks a permanent director, he will be its highest ranking member. As you can imagine, there is suddenly a lot of concern about what this could mean for the agency that counts the citizenry in order to determine voting districts:
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.
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.
Brunell is an outlier, a local guy who, according to his CV, has no experience managing an agency of any size. (He does, however, list his appearances on TV and radio newscasts). He has criticized the statistical adjustments made in the 2000 census to better count people of color, arguing that it’s a method to help the Democrats win future elections. Which brings up the next concern: The job has historically been one stripped completely of partisanship. Its past directors are statisticians and demographers and lifelong civil servants.
Let’s jump back to Politico, which quoted the former co-director of the Census Project, Ann 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.”