Preparations for 2010: Is the Census Bureau Ready for the Job Ahead?

Andrew Reamer
Andrew Reamer Former Brookings Expert

July 17, 2007

Editor’s Note: Before a subcommittee of the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Andrew Reamer’s testimony emphasized the importance of the decennial Census to the nation and assessed the readiness of the federal government for the 2010 count.

Chairman Carper, Senator Coburn, Members of the Subcommittee, I am pleased to appear before you and very much appreciate your invitation. My role today is to twofold. First, I will describe the extraordinary importance of the decennial census to the nation—to our representative democracy, to public policy at all levels of government, and to our economy. Second, I will review key issues with regard to the Census Bureau’s readiness to conduct the census, that is, its capacity to ensure that the census will be complete, accurate, and able to fulfill its essential public roles.

The Fundamental Importance of the Census to American Government and Economy

The architecture of our representative democracy rests on the foundation provided by the decennial census.

Office holders in each branch of the federal government are chosen, directly or indirectly, on the basis of the census. Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution requires that the number of seats in the House of Representatives shall be apportioned according to the enumeration of the nation’s population, which is to be conducted once every ten years. By extension, the election of the President also depends upon the census, as the number of votes allocated each state in the Electoral College is equal to the sum of their

Representatives and Senators. As the President chooses the members of the federal judiciary, the census influences the third branch of government as well, and, as we know, that influence can extend for quite some time.

After each census is conducted, state legislatures rely on the census population data to redraw Congressional and state legislative district boundaries. Local governments use these data to determine the size and shape of county and city council districts, school board districts, and voting precincts. In order to enable state and local governments to create legislative districts that comply with standards for population equity (“one person, one vote”) and racial and ethnic balance (Voting Rights Act, Sections 2 and 5), the Census Bureau provides a special tabulation of census data organized by voting districts as specified by each state.

Clearly, the collection and use of census data have a critical influence on political outcomes. While this relationship usually is uncontroversial and the outcomes typically go unchallenged, recent incidents demonstrate the power of the census and how small differences can have dramatic effects:

  • After Census 2000, the state of Utah missed gaining a fourth Congressional seat and sixth electoral vote by 856 residents; the 435th seat and 538th electoral vote went to North Carolina instead.(1) Utah’s experience has been highly instructive to states with regard to the 2010 Census. Realizing that apportionment is a zero sum game, more states will be working aggressively to bring about a full count.
  • The result of the 2000 presidential election turned on the accuracy of the 1990 census. The election was so close that a slightly more or less accurate census could have produced another pattern of Congressional apportionment and so a different outcome.
  • In 2003, the Texas state legislature’s redrawing of Congressional Districts produced quite a commotion, as some legislators in the minority left the state in the hopes of blocking approval of the new boundaries.

Our Founding Fathers’ notion of using population count as the basis for our representative democracy, rather than physical might or divine right, was, in its time, a remarkable innovation. As history shows, the decennial census has been essential to the success of the American democratic experiment. Consequently, the conduct of the census, enshrined in the Constitution, represents a sacred duty of a sort. Therefore, we cannot take the census—its completeness, its accuracy—for granted; to do so is a step towards diminishing our democracy.

The decennial census is essential not only for determining the allocation of power within government, but the effective performance of the duties of government as well. The impact of the decennial census on public policy is pervasive and profound.

Read the full testimony »


(1) Utah, believing that Mormon missionaries temporarily overseas should be counted as residents, went to the Supreme Court, where it lost.