High Stakes: Politics and the 2010 U.S. Census

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VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. -- It's that time again --- time for the government to count every man, woman and child in the United States. The 2010 Census will also determine how many representatives each state gets in the Congress.

The stakes are high, and that has some wondering if politics are at play.

Every ten years, the Constitution mandates that all Americans be counted. The hope is that you'll fill out a questionnaire when it's mailed in mid-March, and send it back by April 1, the designated "Census Day." In addition to how many people live at your home, you'll be asked your name, gender, age, date of birth, ethnicity and race.

"I really want to emphasize this is the shortest census form since 1790, when we took the first census," said Wayne Hatcher, the director of the Charlotte Regional Census Center. "Ten questions. Ten minutes, and it makes a difference for the community for 10 years."

That difference could mean "power and money," or as Hatcher prefers, "representation and revenue." The census determines which states gain or lose seats in the U.S. House and how districts are re-drawn on the national, state, and local levels.

Winners and Losers

One projection has eight states in the South and West gaining at least one seat after the 2010 Census. Texas could gain as many as four representatives. Ten states, mostly in the Northeast and Midwest, could lose at least one House seat, if the census shows declining populations.

"In other words, the greater our population, the greater our voice," said Sharon Bulova, chairman of the board of supervisors of Fairfax County, Va.

Census numbers also determine how $400 billion in taxpayer money are doled out each year over the next decade. Those federal dollars help pay for state and local programs involving education, health care, roads, and social services.

"The impact is more than four trillion dollars!" emphasized Dr. Alan Krasnoff, the mayor of Chesapeake, Va.

Politics in Play?

With so much on the line, there are concerns that politics also may be involved -- depending on who's in power when the census is taken.

"There may be an exception of 5,000 or 6,000 people, and so they draw those districts, so that they are - if they are in power - reflecting the best chances they have for retaining power for the next 10 years," Virginia state Sen. Yvonne Miller said.

"Politics shouldn't play a role at all in the census taking," Rep. Glenn Nye, D-Va., said. "It's just to collect accurate information about how many people live in what parts of the country."

Approximately 310 million people currently live in the U.S. Counting each person, as you can imagine, is one of the largest operations conducted by the federal government. The U.S. Census Bureau plans to hire 1.4 million temporary employees, and who exactly ends up doing the counting has been a source of controversy.

If you don't fill out your form, expect a visit from a census worker, who will ask you questions face to face. By the way, if you refuse to answer the census questions or give false information, you could face a fine of up to $500.

How do you know your answers won't be changed or even withheld to further political agendas? The Census Bureau says it has measures in place to prevent errors and fraud.

"Our census workers are local individuals in the neighborhood," Hatcher said. "They're people we hire. They go through background checks."

Counting Illegal Immigrants?

However, it's not just who's doing the counting that's causing concern. Who will actually be included in the grand total is also a hot-button issue.

"The one question missing from the census is 'Are you a legal citizen of the United States?'" Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., said. "We have no data on how many people are here illegally in the United States. That would be a good piece of information to find out, yet this census form doesn't do that."

One of the goals of the 2010 Census is to include illegal immigrants in the count. When asked if he was okay with illegal immigrants being counted as well, Nye responded, "I think it's important we know who's here. And so we need an accurate count of all the people that are here in our community."

Critics say that could unfairly hand new Congressional seats to states with large illegal immigrant populations. One projection has California gaining as many as nine.

"When we're drawing seats for Congress, it's very important, it's about citizens because that's who's electing our representation in Washington and in the state houses and state senates around the country," Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., said.

Census Oversight

Another issue of concern is who is overseeing the census. The Congressional Quarterly reported at one point that the Obama Administration was transferring control from the Commerce Department to the White House. That, in turn, drew the attention of Rep. McHenry, who called the move an attempt to politicize the Census Bureau.

The North Carolina Republican is on the subcommittee that keeps an eye on the Census Bureau. McHenry wants to make sure the national count is accurate and free of politics.

"Folks in Washington have tried to manipulate the census," McHenry said. "First of all, by taking political control of this - by Rahm Emanuel, who's a very active politico in the White House and has said that he wants to use every means possible to elect more Democrats and liberals to the United States House of Representatives. So number one, the White House attempted to take the census over and run it out of their political operation. We denied them that ability to do it."

Credible Counting Partners?

McHenry said he and other watchdogs have also stood strong against groups wanting to partner with the U.S. Census Bureau -- groups whose credibility is suspect.

"We have political groups like ACORN, that have tried to get in and manipulate the census for their political gains," McHenry said. "We've stopped them from doing that."

The U.S. Census Bureau severed its partnership with ACORN. As one alternative, Congressman McHenry recommends churches fill partnership roles to insure fairness and accuracy with the census.

"That can make an enormous difference to make sure that reasonable people respond to the census and realize that it is an important function of our government," McHenry said.

And when reasonable people participate, lawmakers believe everyone benefits.

*Originally published February 18, 2010. 

Related Link:

2010 U.S. Census

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