To make sure every American is represented fairly in the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. Constitution mandates a national head count every ten years. Since the first national census was conducted, in 1790, some people were counted and some were not. Slaves, American Indians, and the poor were once excluded from national counts, omissions that cost them political power.
Although the law now requires that everyone be counted, minority groups, especially Hispanics, continue to be undercounted. That prevents Latinos from flexing the political muscle that should come with their growing numbers.
“The census is the basis of our democracy,” says Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. Since Hispanics are fueling population growth in several states, an accurate count—followed by a redrawing of congressional districts to give the growing Latino community the representation it deserves—could send more Latino lawmakers to Congress.
President Barack Obama will receive the official state population counts in December 2010, kicking off the process of dividing 435 U.S. House of Representative seats proportionately among the 50 states. Latino advocates will carefully monitor that process to make sure the count is fair. So will Republicans, who plan to challenge claims of minority undercounts.
“Adjustments produce false counts and are used for political purposes,” says Brock McCleary, spokesperson for Rep. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, the top Republican on a House subcommittee charged with census oversight.
Obama’s choice to head the Census Bureau, University of Michigan sociology professor Robert M. Groves, is an expert in and advocate of using statistical sampling, a process of extrapolating data from the number of people counted to determine—and correct—undercounts. But the Supreme Court ruled in 1999 that statistical sampling can’t be used to apportion House seats, although adjustments can be made to population counts when redrawing congressional boundaries.
After the 2000 census, Arizona, Florida, Texas, and Georgia were among the states that increased their congressional representation because of rapid population growth. New York, Pennsylvania, and Mississippi lost congressional districts that year due to slow population growth.
William H. Frey, a demographer with The Brookings Institution, says Florida, Texas, and Oregon could be the big winners of the 2010 census. Meanwhile, Midwestern “Rust Belt” states, which have experienced years of economic decline and little growth, could be the losers as well as Louisiana, which had thousands of inhabitants displaced by Hurricane Katrina.