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Counting on Trouble

Your guide to the 2010 Census, the next political battle that’ll drive conservatives batty.

In theory, the Census is a straightforward, if onerous, task: Every ten years, count everybody. In reality, it's rife with logistical snags and subject to partisan wrangling--and, with just eight months to go before the Big Count, you can already sense how nasty this is going to get. The first major volley was launched in April, when a pair of Republican senators stalled the confirmation of Obama's nominee for Census director, keeping him from conducting crucial preparatory work. "It's the largest peacetime mobilization every decade that the government attempts," says Phil Sparks, director of The Census Project, a group of organizations, including the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the NAACP, with interests at stake in the Census. "The general only just arrived on the battlefield."

So, to prep you for these battles--ones that will assuredly be fought and refought on your cable dial--here's a look at what's gone down so far, who the key players are, which fights will get ugliest, and who stands to gain the most from next year’s Census.

HOW THE CENSUS WORKS: Every decade, the Census Bureau counts the people who live in the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories. It sends questionnaires to households, and eventually dispatches workers to knock on doors, if people don't return their forms. (The fine for willful non-completion can run up to $5,000.) So far this year, the bureau has begun opening hundreds of satellite offices and updating its behemoth of an address list. And, in January, it will launch an advertising blitz in 28 languages to get people to put pen to paper next spring.

HOW MANY PEOPLE IT WILL EMPLOY?: About 1.4 million temporary workers--a huge number in this dismal economy.

HOW MUCH WILL IT COST?: It could top $14 billion. The cost ballooned after a technical problem forced the bureau to scrap new handheld computers it was supposed to use in the count.

WHY IT MATTERS: The Census is used to reapportion the 435 seats in the House of Representatives, draw new political districts down to the most local of levels, and dictate where the federal government directs roughly $300 billion per year to programs like Medicaid and other social services. "You're competing really with the rest of the country," Joyce Bradshaw, town clerk of North Andover, Massachusetts, told her local newspaper recently.

WHAT'S NEW THIS YEAR: The questionnaire is short, with only ten questions. In the past, the government distributed a longer form that asked for more detailed personal information. From now on, that form will be sent out annually to several million households. The benefits are two-fold: Filling out the Census will be less time-consuming--thus more palatable to busy people--and, with the long form now being gathered each year, the government will get comprehensive population statistics more frequently. "[There was] the need for more timely data," says Kenneth Wachter, a demographer at Berkeley. "If you have rich statistical data coming only every ten years, many of the detailed tabulations are out of date."

Also, the Census will recognize gay marriages for the first time. In late 2011, the Bureau will release state-by-state numbers of same-sex couples who identify themselves as "husband and wife." This could inject politics into the count because, while only six states have legalized gay marriage since the last Census, there is a nationwide push for that number to multiply. "To what degree will people overstate [being married] because they are politically in sync with their states trying to change the laws?" asks William Frey, a demographer and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. (Overstatement wouldn’t be a new development. Another demographer recently pointed out in The Huffington Post that, in 2000, 30 percent of same-sex partners identified themselves as married, even though legally, they were not. But the Census's official recognition of gay marriage, and the recent political firestorms about same-sex unions, could influence the level of overstatement.)

WHO HAS A SAY (OR THINKS THEY SHOULD)?: The head of the whole operation is Professor Robert Groves, the new Census director, who was confirmed in early July after sitting in limbo since April. He is a professor of sociology at the University of Michigan and served as associate director of the Census Bureau from 1990-1992. It falls to Groves to coordinate the bureau's activities, as well as to dispel myths about the process and counter its critics.

Among those critics are Republican senators David Vitter and Richard Shelby, who placed the hold on Groves. They'd demanded assurances from the White House that the Census wouldn't use statistical sampling or involve the community group ACORN (see below for more on these juicy controversies). "[T]hey were unwilling to make those commitments," Vitter said in a recent statement. The nomination's hold was finally removed when Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid filed for cloture, ultimately forcing a vote.

Then there's Republican Congresswoman Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who suggested she would boycott the Census because she's concerned the data might fall into the wrong hands. "For myself and for my family, our comfort level is that we will … give the number of people in our home, and that's where we are going to draw the line," she told Fox News in June. (Republicans on the House Census Oversight Committee politely told her to be quiet because it's illegal not to participate in the Census. What's more, Census data is strictly confidential.)

Also maligning the Census are several conservative pundits, including Glenn Beck, who has pointed out that he’s not sure the government actually fines anyone for not filling it out (in other words, you can get away with it!), and G. Gordon Liddy, who recently criticized the Census for asking "intrusive stuff."


1. Statistical sampling involves using statistics from a small population to estimate what the larger one looks like. Because millions of people, particularly minorities and immigrants, are missed in the Census, many survey experts champion sampling, including a National Academy of Sciences panel that released a supportive report in 1994. Others, however, argue that the practice only introduces complexity and the possibility of further error into the Census. On the political front, Democrats generally support sampling, while Republicans tend to think it’s a boondoggle. As William Frey, the demographer from Brookings says, "Republicans typically have thought that any use of sophisticated techniques and broad outreach that will help bring in groups that tend to not vote Republican won't help them in the district apportionment process over time."

The Supreme Court has struck down the use of sampling to reapportion congressional seats, and, although he supports the practice, Groves has assured Congress the bureau won't use it. Still, some Republicans are chafing, insisting that the Democrats will find a way to sneak in sampling anyway. "Left-leaning groups want to include millions of pretend people in the real-life 2010 Census," a blogger for the conservative Heritage Foundation declared in mid-July. It’s a talking point that’s sure to stick.

2. We may very well see the GOP dust off the squirrel suits it had young staffers don during the 2008 presidential election because ACORN, the community group much-maligned by the right because a handful of its (hundreds of thousands of) members have committed voter registration fraud, is working with the Census Bureau. A Washington Times editorial said that the Census Bureau bringing ACORN in on the project is “like Santa trusting a child to tell him how many times he or she has been good in the past year.”

According to a Census spokesman, ACORN is just one among thousands of community partners that are helping the bureau publicize its efforts and find temporary employees. So, while it may recommend workers to the bureau, ACORN hasn't been contracted to gather Census forms.

3. Some minority groups are disgruntled by the Census. Several Latino organizations have called for a boycott unless the Obama administration commits to immigration reform. "There is no incentive for me to cooperate with the federal government to conduct this count unless we get relief from the federal government on the types of issues that are devastating our families socially and economically," Nativo Lopez, head of the Mexican American Political Association, recently told The Los Angeles Times. Some Latino leaders are also concerned that Census data could be used to round up illegal immigrants, despite assurances to the contrary.

And the miscommunications might continue. In April, five committees that advise the bureau on outreach to minority groups agreed that the initial plan for a P.R. campaign, which will educate people about the Census in the months leading up to the count, was a flop. "[They felt] it didn't adequately address the concerns of people of color, nor did they feel that the resources were being adequately sent out to media in their particular markets," says Sparks of The Census Project.

4. New Orleans's mayor is asking residents displaced by Katrina who plan to move back to claim their old addresses in the Census. Problem is, that's illegal, and leaders in some cities and towns near New Orleans are criticizing Mayor Ray Nagin for trying to divert federal funding determined by a locality's population away from them. Nagin wants the Census Bureau to grant an exception, but a spokeswoman told The Wall Street Journal that won't be happening. "Any individual who does something like that [claim an old address] is going to hurt the place where they are living, and hurt New Orleans," Katherine Smith said. According to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, the city's population is still about 25 percent smaller than it was before Katrina, and it grew only 4 percent in the last year.

POSSIBLE WINNERS AND LOSERS AT THE STATE LEVEL: According to Election Data Services (EDS), a consulting firm that specializes in redistricting, several Midwestern states, like Missouri and Iowa, could lose a seat in the House of Representatives after the Census. Ohio could lose two. Texas, one the other hand, could gain four, and Florida could gain two. Some other Southern (South Carolina, Georgia) and Southwestern states (Nevada, Utah) could each gain one.

California could lose a seat for the first time. Experts attribute this to people seeking lower housing costs and jobs in nearby Nevada and Arizona. But these projections, which came out in late 2008, don't account for the economic meltdown. "Some demographers are saying it's keeping people from moving," Brace explains.

One way or the other, Census politics could affect the reapportionment process, particularly if people are convinced to boycott the process, don't understand it, or otherwise don't participate. Only a handful or people can determine which states gain and lose seats. "We've never seen it this close,” Brace says. “Usually, it's in the hundreds of thousands. … There are about thirteen to fifteen states that are right on the bubble."

What's more, having troops overseas has shifted the population in favor of military-heavy states where many soldiers claim addresses--like North Carolina, which gained a congressional seat in 2000, at the expense of Utah, which held steady at only three seats. The trend could continue in 2010.

… AND AT THE PARTY LEVEL: Whether Republicans or Democrats stand to gain the most politically from the Census depends on how accurate the count is--and on which party controls a state's government, because it's up to the states to redraw political districts. Utah's Deseret News reported in April that "states gaining [House] seats tend to be Republican--and Republicans control those state legislatures." And Adam Nagourney recently pointed out in The New York Times that, if Republicans gain several governorships next year, as some experts predict they will (they currently trail Democrats 28-to-22), these new conservative executives would "be in charge as their states draw Congressional and state legislative districts as part of the reapportionment process." This adds an extra layer of importance to the next two years’ whopping 41 gubernatorial elections.

Seyward Darby is assistant managing editor of The New Republic.

By Seyward Darby