US Politics and Counting Heads

For all of you who live in the United States, you must forgive my ignorance in this post (let us hope it is not invincible ignorance!)  But I was looking on the New York Times the other day and I found this article about the 2010 US census and its political effect.  There were a few things that I did not know about the census which I found interesting and thought that I would share with all you lucky readers
First, I did not realise that Article 1, Section 2 of the US Constitution actually requires the country to have a census or “Enumeration”.  I suppose that makes sense if you are basing Electoral College votes upon population – which the US Constitution also requires.  According to the New York Times, the census is important because it:

“…determines how many seats each state gets in the House of Representatives, and helps to determine where the district lines are drawn within each state. It will also shift billions upon billions of federal dollars over the next decade from some parts of the country to others because of population-driven financing formulas.” The latest US Census, which was held last year, has rearranged the electoral college map by giving more Congressional seats to the South and West and taking them off the Northeast and Midwest:

“According to the new counts, Texas will gain four seats, Florida will gain two, while New York and Ohio each lose two. Fourteen other states gained or lost one seat. The gainers included Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, South Carolina and Utah; the losers included Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts and New Jersey.” This is meant to favour the Republicans as the states that are gaining seats are those that generally vote Red, whereas the losing states are more likely to vote blue.  The Republicans are also well placed in the battle to redraw Congressional district boundaries as 29 of the 50 governors are Republican.  However, on the other side, the gain in population in the South and West was mainly driven by members of minorities, particularly Hispanics, who are more traditionally Democratic voters.  With such importance riding on the outcome of redrawing the Congressional districts, it is no surprise that both parties are calling in the lawyers.  In 2000, after the last census, litigation occurred in 40 states!
Aside from the political numbers issue, I was also surprised about the uncertainty that seemed to play around the Census results.  The Census is conducted via mail surveys and door knocking and the 2010 edition employed 700,000(!) people.  On 1 April 2010 (the deadline for returning the surveys by mail) nearly one third of Americans had not done so.  New York City had returned only 32% of the surveys mailed out to it, whereas the country as a whole had returned 52% of all the surveys sent out. (I assume that means that 52% of the surveys account for two-thirds of the US population.)
Apparently this traditional method fails to account for millions of Americans.  The Democrats have been arguing that:

“…the solution is to use statistical sampling models to extrapolate figures for the uncounted people. If minorities, immigrants, the poor and the homeless are the most likely to be undercounted, then such sampling would presumably benefit the Democrats.” On the other hand, Republicans argue that such method is unreliable and that the Constitution mandates an actual count.  In 1999 the Supreme Court ruled (by 5 to 4) that the sampling techniques could not be used to reapportion House seats from one state to another.  However, this does not end the matter as some experts still believe that sampling could be used to redraw district lines within states and to determine money flows.  This has not yet been determined one way or another. Still, in the United States, population really counts for something politically!


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