A Common Cause court case opposing Republican gerrymandering in North Carolina revealed that Trump officials lied about the 2020 census citizenship question in order to maintain “White” and “Republican Power”
MARC STEINER Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. It’s great to have you all with us.
Voting rights goes to the heart of our very democracy. Using race to abridge those rights was commonplace in our country and gerrymandering districts to disenfranchise another political party is as old as the republic itself. Now, North Carolina Republicans have gerrymandered their legislative and congressional districts to ensure that Democrats cannot control the state’s political future, despite the fact that Democrats are in the majority. Common Cause took them to court in Common Cause v. Lewis to challenge the gerrymandering of those districts. In the course of their case, they’ve discovered documents that clearly show that Trump’s administration lied when pushing for a citizenship question on the 2020 census. It may seem disconnected; they’re not. What seems separate, is really connected, and the future of our voting rights are on the line.
We are joined by Bob Phillips, Executive Director of Common Cause North Carolina. And Bob, welcome. Good to have you with us.
BOB PHILLIPS Thank you, Marc. A pleasure to be with you too.
MARC STEINER So let’s talk about this. For just for our viewers, very quickly describe your original court case and this discovery that was made in the course of your fighting for a totally different, not disconnected issue of gerrymandering in North Carolina.
BOB PHILLIPS North Carolina has been number one. We like to think of ourselves as number one in basketball, but in this case too we’re number one in gerrymandering, and we’ve actually got two cases— Common Cause v. Rucho, which was argued before the US Supreme Court will get a decision later this month, connected to a similar gerrymandering case out of Maryland. Where, as we were saying, one is in our case, Republicans gerrymandering Democrats; the Maryland case, Democrats gerrymandering Republicans, but Common Cause v. Lewis is very similar. It is a challenge of our state constitution, saying that lawmakers engaged in extreme partisan gerrymandering on the legislative maps.
We are in discovery. We don’t go to trial until mid-July and in the course of discovery, we were fortunate enough to get the 75,000 files from the mastermind, a guy named Thomas Hofeller, who had really gerrymandered maps all around the country, but also in North Carolina. And recently, we, our attorneys discovered this memo that, sort of, linked Hofeller to the census and the citizenship question, and so that’s kind of how this thing has today hit the news in a big way. We are seeing that the man who was rigging maps for partisan advantage was behind the same, I guess, kind of, effort to rig the census for a partisan advantage.
MARC STEINER Well, let’s cover this for a bit here because there’s a number of interesting aspects to this. First of all, his daughter, Stephanie Hofeller Lizon, really was estranged from her father. So, she inherited all of his files, went through his files, found this information, and brought it to you. I guess, A—it shows you better stay close to your children, [laughs] wonder what they might discover about you and tell the world. But so, that’s literally what happened, right? She found these files and gave it to you all in the course of your work working around the gerrymandering issue. Is that right?
BOB PHILLIPS Marc, it was really the day after the holiday break in early January, the phone rings in my office, and on the other end of the line is Stephanie Hofeller. I didn’t know who she was, and even when she made the connection, I wasn’t sure why she was calling. And honestly, she was calling really about another legal matter. She lives outside of North Carolina, her mother still living here, and she was in need of some legal help and felt like there was no one in this town whom she could trust because, as you’ve mentioned, she was estranged from her father. It led to multiple conversations. We were actually trying to assist her just, as you know, being nice people, if you will. Over the course of several conversations, we learned she had these files and then was willing to share with us. The lesson I, kind of, took out of this was, always pick up the phone even if you don’t know who’s on the other end of the line. [MARC laughs] It’s worth picking it up and answering the call. And so, that’s what we did.
MARC STEINER So let’s go through some, just a little bit of what her files, the files she gave you that her father had. They really, I mean, and we showed a bit of this, but let me read some of this that we just showed. We can put that back up and let people see it. What they showed was that when they testified in court, that they lied, that the Trump administration people, Attorney General Gore and others, lied on the stand. They testified that they drafted this initial letter to request citizenship in October, early November in 2017. It was actually done before that. He testified that Dr. Hofeller said, when they asked him a question about the citizenship question in January 2017, he said Mark, you need to make sure that we take a good census, that the administration doesn’t skimp on the budget, is all he said Hofeller had done when, in fact, Hofeller ghostwrote the Neuman Department of Justice letter that outlined it all.
And, there’s so many other things here— that he was one of the people, that they relied on Hofeller for expertise on voting rights when that was not, and they denied doing that; that Hofeller told him that citizenship question would maximize representation for the Latino community when in reality what Hofeller wrote was the opposite, that we can dampen down and make sure that white people have the vote and Latinos and blacks don’t. So, I mean, these were out-and-out lies that were told. I mean, it’s just mind-blowing that this stuff was revealed, so what does that mean? Where will this take you?
BOB PHILLIPS Well, you know, it’s pretty serious when you’re committing perjury before Congress, which indeed it looks like this could be very well the case, and this was what was filed in a brief today at the New York District Court where this citizenship case originated. You know, you want to say it’s shocking and in today’s world, who knows really how people are reacting, but it’s outrageous. I’m angered by it, as every American really should be, that this was not about what the officials in the Justice Department and Commerce Department had been saying, that it was about a better enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. It was all a sham, a plan to try to reduce, dilute the voting strength of in this case Latinos and other minorities who, you know, granted, might be intimidated by this question of “are you a citizen?” on the census— something we’ve never done.
We’ve never asked every person living in this country that question. It’s been done in small samples, but never done to the entire universe of people, so it’s terrible. Certainly, our hope is that the United States Supreme Court—And my understanding is that a filing was going to be made earlier today to provide them this evidence, and even though that case has been heard— the oral arguments were made April 23rd— still, this is very relevant information. My understanding is that the US Supreme Court can certainly take this in, and maybe it alters the opinion they come out with, or maybe one of the Justices decides to peel away from where they are now. I mean, all that’s speculative but, again, for those of us who were deeply concerned about this, you know, our hope is that maybe this might change what a lot of people have been anticipating as a 5-4 decision that would come in favor of the Trump administration, so we just have to wait and see.
MARC STEINER So, I mean, that was one of the questions I was going to ask is, we just don’t know how this will play out. I mean, they could very well say that the arguments have closed and we can’t take this new evidence in, but this new evidence, it would seem to me if the Supreme Court had to hear it, could affect a ruling in favor of the citizenship question on the 2020 census. I mean, this is one of the most critical findings I’ve heard about in a long time, and you literally stumbled across it.
BOB PHILLIPS We literally did. I mean, my understanding is this information, you know, kind of, came to light within the last week. So timing-wise, you know, we were not able to provide it in a timely fashion because we didn’t know about it. We didn’t realize it was there but still, you know, this case has not been rendered by the high court and they have certainly time. Again, I’m just saying this as a citizen. I don’t know any inside information and I’m not an attorney, but to take this evidence, thoughtfully take it in, as they ultimately make that decision.
MARC STEINER So, one last question because I’m really curious about how you all think about this, what your internal conversations were about. I mean, if you take this case, the one that you have pushed in North Carolina around gerrymandering that pushes black folks and minorities and Democrats into districts where they cannot gain representation because of how they redistricted the state itself; and then you take this case about the citizenship question on the US Census, which could in fact mean, as Hofeller himself has said, which is why he did it, to ensure that Latinos don’t vote and they’re not counted, which can change the nature of districts so that the Democrats and others will not have their do in Congress and other places, as Republicans would— I mean, this to me, if you combine these things, can go to the very heart of our democracy, the heart of what voting means. It’s like turning all the struggles around voting rights on its head, as they attempted to do when they used the Voting Rights Act to justify using the citizenship question. So, I think what’s happening here is monumental in terms of what the future could hold.
BOB PHILLIPS They are linked. I mean, the census is all about an accurate count for apportionment as well as the distribution of federal dollars. And to think that this was some plan crafted perhaps right here in Raleigh. I mean, this is where Thomas, Dr. Hofeller, lived. And again, that he was responsible for the manipulation and the rigging of district maps across the country, and then had a hand in this kind of a plan to rig again the census for the purposes of an advantage with redistricting to a particular party, is again very disturbing, very frightening, and again we hope it harnesses some outrage across the country.
MARC STEINER Well, this is certainly eye-opening, and we look forward to following this and talking to you all more down line as this unfolds, especially as we see the Supreme Court takes up the evidence you all have discovered. Bob Phillips, Executive Director of Common Cause North Carolina, thank you so much for joining us here on The Real News. It’s been a pleasure to talk with you.
BOB PHILLIPS Thank you, Marc. Great talking to you, as well.
MARC STEINER And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thanks for joining us. Take care.