The once-in-every -10-years census that will be conducted this spring has always been considered a bedrock of American democracy — the head count that tells us how the country has grown, how seats in Congress should be assigned and where federal dollars should flow.
But, to one Connecticut population expert, the census and how it is used are shortchanging Connecticut and many states like it, and may even be contributing to the partisan, gridlocked Congress that discourages faith in government.
Orlando Rodriguez is the manager of the Connecticut State Data Center in Storrs, which analyzes U.S. Census Bureau data for the state. He has been releasing a series of papers that eventually will become "Vote Thieves: Illegal Immigration, Congressional Apportionment, and Census 2010," to be published by Potomac Books this fall.
Rodriguez's conclusions are not likely to win him many friends among traditional politicians, but his provocative analysis raises pointed questions about our representative system in an important election year.
Immigrants And Non-Voters
Under the 14th Amendment, which was passed after the Civil War to integrate freed slaves into the American electoral system, members of the House of Representatives from each state would be apportioned to the states by "counting the whole number of persons in each state."
After the census every 10 years, states like California and Texas that have rapidly gained population generally are apportioned more House seats, while states with relatively stable populations, like Connecticut, lose seats. (In 2001, after the results of the 2000 Census were tabulated, Connecticut lost a congressional seat, dropping from six to five members in the U.S. House.)
But in "Vote Thieves," Rodriguez argues that representation based on population size unfairly penalizes many Northeastern states and intensifies political polarization. The fundamental problem, Rodriguez says, is that states are given federal representation based on the total count of people there. Apportionment is not made according to voting turnout in states, and not according to those who are legal citizens.
This has two major effects, Rodriguez says. Apportionment by raw head counts hugely favors Southern border states at the expense of Northern and Midwestern states. Those Southern border states tend to have younger populations with low voter turnouts. But the generally older and high-voting populations of the North and Midwest are given fewer representatives and thus fewer votes in the House.
If voter turnout in the most recent presidential elections, instead of raw head counts, was used in assigning House seats, Rodriguez's calculations show that Connecticut would actually gain a House seat. Massachusetts would gain two seats.
Rodriguez says that linking House seats to total head counts is also contributing to the rise of "Super States," which tends to distort national politics.
"Currently, the four most populous states — California, Texas, New York and Florida — hold 139 seats or 32 percent of all seats in the House of Representatives," Rodriguez says. "After reapportionment in 2010, these same four states will increase their representation to 143 seats."
Rodriguez says that, as a result, the House of Representatives is more unbalanced than at any time since the 1870s. And, he says, the shift to states with high head counts but large numbers of undocumented residents has several practical effects.
"If you talk about an issue like immigration reform, you simply can't get it without the House votes of states like Texas and California," Rodriguez says. "But those are exactly the states that have no incentive to pass immigration reform because they benefit from the extra representation."
The Florida Vote
Citizens who don't vote have a much greater impact than illegal immigrants on skewing House representation, Rodriguez says. Apportioning House seats according to voter turnout would motivate states to both encourage voting and enfranchise as many voters as possible. This could have had an important impact in the disputed presidential election results in Florida in 2000.
"Most election experts have concluded that up to 100,000, mostly minority voters were disenfranchised in Florida in 2000, mostly because registered voters were not properly recorded on voting rolls and thus turned away from the polls, and Florida also has one of the most aggressive practices of placing voters on felon exclusion lists," Rodriguez says.
"But if Florida had an incentive to maximize the number of voters because that's how the state's congressional seats were apportioned," he said, "the outcome would have been different."
Heightens Partisan Strife
Rewarding states with low voter turnouts, Rodriguez argues, is also contributing to the partisan atmosphere in Congress.
In the 2008 presidential election, Northern and Midwestern states had the highest participation rates, with Minnesota ranking first with 75 percent of the voting age residents casting ballots. (Connecticut was ranked 19th in the country, with a voter turnout of 67 percent.) But Florida and California were ranked 31st and 32nd among the states, with voter participation of 63 percent. Texas was ranked 45th, with a voter turnout of 56 percent.
"When state legislatures redraw congressional districts, which they are about to do after this census, they generally create lines that favor their parties to guarantee election of incumbents," Rodriguez says.
"So, we have an atmosphere in Congress of issues being decided by increasingly partisan representatives voting along party lines, as we just saw in the health care reform bill. This discourages moderates from voting because you just don't see that many moderate candidates anymore," he says.
"But apportioning by voter turnout would encourage the creation of more competitive districts to draw in more moderate voters. The result might well be more moderate representatives in the House, and a greater willingness to compromise on major national issues."
Rodriguez cautions that he is only recommending detaching the raw census count from apportioning House seats. An accurate census count is still important for the country and everyone — both citizens and undocumented immigrants — should participate, he says.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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