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Who Is Thomas Brunell? Trump's Census Pick Is Causing Alarm

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Donald Trump's latest potential appointment for a high-stakes government role became the source of ever greater political stress on Tuesday, Nov. 21. According to Politico, Trump's potential census pick, Thomas Brunell, is causing alarm for many across the country. The administration is seriously considering appointing Thomas Brunell to deputy director, the top operational spot at the U.S. Census Bureau, per two sources reportedly briefed on the matter.

Politco reports Brunell, a political science professor with no experience working in government, has long been against the competitive election model in the U.S. He has testified more than six times to voice his support for Republican redistricting efforts, and was the author of a 2008 book titled Redistricting and Representation: Why Competitive Elections Are Bad for America.

The top permanent position at the Census was left open after former deputy director John Thompson resigned in June. According to Politico, the position has traditionally been filled by nonpolitical career civil servants with statistics backgrounds. Hiring Brunell would mark an usual move by the administration to give the job to a political, non-government candidate.

The census everyone is concerned about is the 2020 decennial census, the official nationwide count of population and households conducted every ten years. Though is easy to overlook as a simple tally, the census could have a huge impact on political decisions, such as determining appropriate representation in Congress, allocating electoral votes, and drawing district lines for each state. It can also determine how federal funds are allocated.

Redistricting is a process whereby lawmakers redraw the lines of their districts, often to maximize and consolidate the power of their party's voters, giving disproportionate weight to those voters. Brunell has been a staunch advocate of creating these politically homogenous districts, defending them in his book over balanced bipartisan groupings.

The chief concern is that a pick for census who is politically motivated could fudge the numbers in ways that favor one outcome over another. A former high-ranking official from the Department of Commerce told Politico the appointment could be "worse than making him director." Per Vanity Fair, the official added, "There are tons of little things he could be doing to influence what the final count looks like ... The ripple effect on reapportionment would be astounding.”

"If true, it signals an effort by the administration to politicize the Census,” Terri Ann Lowenthal, former co-director of the Census Project, an organization that tracks the census, told Politico. "It’s very troubling."

The census count has also become increasingly political, raising questions of who gets counted. There is debate about adding a citizenship question to the census, which some fear would lead to minorities not responding. Areas that are home to large numbers of non-citizens, for example, could be drastically affected by such a change. While no executive order has been filed to add this question, Trump's forming a commission to investigate his unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud (a claim which Politifact debunked) add tension to voter's rights advocates concerned about the potential pick.

"Census literally determines how every person in America is counted. Can't overstate how chilling this would be for democracy," Mother Jones' Ari Berman wrote on Twitter.

University of Michigan Law professor Sam Bagenstos tweeted, "I don't know how to do one of those flashing red light things, but appointing a frequent Republican redistricting expert witness to the top operational job in the census should set off alarms."

Adding to the problem is a funding shortage, which would pose a massive headache to the new leadership. This has sparked additonal concerns that the underfunding could lead to an inaccurate count in 2020. An unnamed person who worked with Brunell told Politico, "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."

The official hiring decision could be made as early as this week, per Politico. The Senate does not confirm this pick, unlike other presidential appointments, so a decision by the Trump administration would be hard to counter.