Most of our blog posts so far have focused on dramatic topics, like What if large numbers of elected officials die? Is the United States unraveling? Why can’t we “recall” a president we don’t like? But there’s a sleeper issue that hasn’t gotten much attention yet, and it needs to because it could undermine our entire democracy. What’s the issue? The 2020 census. It might sound tedious but it’s really important. Furthermore, you can help resolve the problem by alerting the public and elected officials.
The Framers believed that counting the US population was so important they put the requirement for this “enumeration” in the fourth paragraph (Article I, Section 2, Clause 3) of the Constitution. Because taking the census is fundamental to the principle of representative government, it is one of the few acts Congress must do. The text is as follows:
Representatives…shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers… The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct.
Complying with their duty, Congress made sure that in 1790, federal enumerators were dispatched to hack trails through dense forests and raft across swift rivers to count everyone, including enslaved people. The Constitution stated that slaves would be worth only three-fifths as much as free persons when computing the representatives allotted to each state, but, in order for this “Three-Fifths Clause” to work, they had to be counted. The document also provided that “Indians” who didn’t pay taxes didn’t count at all.
Until 1850, census-takers continued to trek door-to-door to count noses. By the mid-nineteenth century, though, the country had grown large enough that that method became impractical, and mail-in census forms supplemented the personal touch.
However it’s conducted, thousands of people are hired every ten years to be “census takers” to track down as many people as possible who reside in the United States as of April 1 of the census year.
In order to save an estimated five billion dollars and ensure that all 324,000,000 plus people are counted, John Thomas, the head of the Census Bureau in 2016, proposed for the first time that Americans fill out their forms online. Because this process has never been used, he planned to hire technology experts and other personnel to test-drive it in 2018. However, Congress has not appropriated the necessary funds.
In May 2017, Thomas abruptly resigned, saying, “I had done all I could do as a political appointee at the Census Bureau.” A new permanent head of the Bureau has not been named. So preparations for the 2020 census are in limbo.
Without accurate numbers, we would have no idea in 2021 how many representatives each state is entitled to. After all, each census creates “winners”—the states that have gained population in the previous decade, like California and Texas—and “losers” those that remained stagnant or lost residents, like New York or Ohio. Moreover, in twenty-first century America, the census is also used to decide how to distribute almost six hundred billion dollars in federal money for services like school lunches.
If the next census is underfunded and the online system remains undeveloped, the whole process will cost much more than it needs to. Furthermore, we run the risk of significant miscounts. Without the necessary staff, the census might not be as careful or comprehensive as in the past. As a result, a state might unfairly or inaccurately gain or lose a representative in the House. Low-income families might not get the food stamps or free school lunches they’re entitled to. Sick people might not receive the medical care they need. The consequences of a bad count are almost endless.
There’s no way to know exactly how many Americans would be overlooked. But statisticians fear that if we do move to an electronic method of enumeration, many of them might be poor people who don’t have easy access to computers. And undocumented immigrants, who are estimated to comprise about 11.3 million persons, might fear interacting with the government unless they are assured that information they give the census taker isn’t turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials.
Why count undocumented aliens? Because the Constitution calls for counting persons, not just citizens or voters. The total population includes millions of non-voters, including children, resident aliens, and, in some states, convicted felons. Just because you don’t vote doesn’t mean you don’t matter.
So, what can you do to help make sure everyone is counted? Tell your representative and senators to vote to fund the 2020 Census. Tell the president to name a new director of the Census Bureau. Tell your friends and family that this matters, a lot. This is a nonpartisan issue. And the Framers would be proud of you.