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SC DMV shares records with feds as Trump seeks to determine citizenship in census

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President Donald Trump appears at a Gov. Henry McMaster campaign event at Airport High School in Cayce near Columbia, June 25, 2018. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

COLUMBIA — South Carolina's Department of Motor Vehicles reached an agreement earlier this month to share driver's license records with the U.S. Census Bureau, a move that could help the Trump administration determine the citizenship status of residents in the state.

The agreement, first reported Wednesday by NPR, makes South Carolina one of at least four states to send similar information to the federal government, joining Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota. All four states have Republican governors.

The decision stemmed directly from Gov. Henry McMaster, a close ally of President Donald Trump, who has long sought to use the census to figure out how many U.S. residents are non-citizens and where they live.

McMaster spoke with U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who supervises the Census Bureau, "on a number of occasions about how the state could help with the administration’s Census efforts," according to McMaster's spokesman Brian Symmes.

"The governor’s office then asked DMV to work with the Census Bureau to determine what they were able to legally provide in a safe and secure way," Symmes said.

The DMV approved a 14-page "Memorandum of Understanding" with the Census Bureau on July 2.

The Census Bureau would pay the DMV $27,000 within 30 days of receiving the files, the memorandum states. South Carolina sells DMV information to companies, generating more than $42 million in sales since 2015, according to a report from WYFF in Greenville.

Among the listed reasons for the Census Bureau to obtain the data was to assist with a project that would "determine the number of citizens and non-citizens in the country."

Asked why the DMV decided to share the information, agency spokeswoman Julie Roy pointed to a federal law — the Driver's Privacy Protection Act — that allows them to disclose the records for the purpose of "carrying out legitimate government agency functions."

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Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked an attempt by the Trump administration to add a question to the census asking all respondents whether or not they are U.S. citizens.

A citizenship question has not been included on the decennial census form since 1950. An array of civil rights groups feared it could discourage immigrants from participating in the census. A 2015 study conducted by a Republican redistricting strategist suggested a citizenship question could help the party in future elections.

A few days after the court ruling, the Trump administration abandoned the legal efforts. Instead, the president directed the Census Bureau to use existing government records to try to reach the same results.

"We will leave no stone unturned," Trump said at the time.

S.C. Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, said he fears McMaster's decision could end up hurting South Carolina because the federal government could use the information to reduce the state's census count, which could then lead to the state receiving a lower proportion of federal funds.

"It just doesn't make any sense to me what they're trying to do," Hutto said. "The governor is supposed to be looking out for South Carolina and our taxpayers, not looking out for Trump and his politics."

South Carolina officials, like other states, have otherwise been working to get as many residents as possible to fill out the census form in order to maximize the state's count. Lt. Gov. Pam Evette, McMaster's running mate, has been leading those efforts in South Carolina.

The results could affect how many congressional districts the state will have for the next 10 years, how many electoral college votes it will have in presidential elections and how much of around $900 billion in federal funds will be allocated to the state for critical services like roads, schools and hospitals.

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

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