|The Constitution, the Congress and the Census:
Representation and Reapportionment
"Representation and direct Taxes 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."
-- Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution of the United States
Community leaders use the census for everything from planning schools and building roads to providing recreational opportunities and managing health care services. But the mandate for conducting a census every 10 years comes from the U. S. Constitution. And the importance of the census as an instrument of democracy has not diminished since 1790 -- when the first census was taken.
The need for a census arose soon after the 13 colonies broke their ties with Great Britain. The Revolutionary War was expensive and the census provided a way to allocate the debt among the states. The founding fathers also wanted to establish a truly representative government and linking state population totals to the number of members in the House of Representatives would serve this purpose.
By counting people for both taxes and representation, the founding fathers believed the census would be both accurate and fair. While the states might be inclined to inflate the numbers to increase their representation in Congress, using the numbers for taxation would discourage any attempt to fudge the numbers. Although the census' role in tax collection ended in 1913 when the 16th Amendment authorized the direct taxation of individuals, its role in maintaining representative government is as strong today as ever.
Originally, there were only 65 members in the U.S. House of Representatives. But because this number was linked to the size of the population, membership grew to 106 after the 1790 census determined that there were 4 million people in the country. The number of representatives continued to grow along with the nation until 1911 when Congress limited membership to 435.
Placing a cap on the number of representatives in Congress presented new problems in determining the number of representatives to which each state is entitled. Apportionment, the process of distributing the 435 Congressional seats among the states, depends on the size of the population in each state. But simple division generates fractions and you cannot send a third of an elected official to Congress. Mathematicians, statisticians and politicians debated the problem until 1941 when Congress adopted the mathematical formula known today as Equal Proportions (Title 2, Section 2a, U. S. Code). (For further information on how Equal Proportions is used to determine the number of Congressional seats in each state, see https://www.census.gov/population/www/censusdata/apportionment.html.)
Still, apportionment of Congress is only half the process of distributing political power. Virtually all states rely on the census numbers for redistricting, the redrawing of political districts within the states after apportionment. However, innovations were needed to make sure every state that wanted to use census data had access to the information it needed. After the 1970 census, state officials complained that the results did not include summary data for local areas such as election precincts and wards. These areas are the essential building blocks for creating new districts and meeting the "one-person-one-vote" requirements of the Supreme Court.
In 1975, Congress responded to the needs of state legislatures by enacting P.L. 94-171. Under this law, the Census Bureau has a responsibility to "work closely" with officials in the individual states before each census. Together the Census Bureau and state officials define a geographic plan that produces the small-area population data needed to redraw state legislative and congressional districts.
Under the provisions of P.L. 94-171, the data needed for redistricting are delivered to the majority and minority leaders of each legislature, as well as to each governor. Forty-six states participated in the 1990 Census Redistricting Data Program and received population data to assist them in the redistricting process.
Since 1990, the Census Bureau has continued to reach out to state and local governments and their national umbrella groups. Some examples: the National Organization of Black County Officials, the National Association of Counties, the National Conference of State Legislatures, Asian Pacific American Municipal Officials, Hispanic Elected Local Officials, the National League of Cities, the Alaska Federation of Natives, the National Congress of American Indians and the National Association of Towns and Townships.
The leaders of each state legislature were asked to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the 1990 census and, in particular, the Census Bureau's efforts to provide timely population data for state legislative and congressional redistricting. Their recommendations are reflected in the improved Census 2000 Redistricting Data Program.
Governor's liaisons and tribal government liaisons have been invited to work directly with the Census Bureau to support Census 2000. Senior Census Bureau officials have discussed the Plan for Census 2000 at dozens of governmental forums. Additionally, staff have made presentations, conducted workshops and responded to the concerns and suggestions of officials at many other meetings. Several hundred specialists are now on board in the Census Bureau's 12 regional census centers where they are networking with governmental and community leaders to ensure that all residents understand and take part in the national accounting in 2000.
Some people consider participating in the census as important as voting. But, unlike voting, the census touches everyone living in the United States -- regardless of age or citizenship status. As one of the foundations of our democratic process, the census provides every person in the United States with an equal voice in Congress.