Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Counting Up

Republican Senator David Vitter proposes that the U.S. Census should count citizens only. Traditionally, the census counts all persons living in the U.S., whether they are citizens or not. Because the census is used to apportion the House of Representatives, Vitter's proposed change in practice would have a marked impact on the makeup of the House. States with substantial noncitizen populations (most notably California) would lose; other states would gain.

Vitter says that counting noncitizens would "strip these states [the ones that would stand to gain from his proposal] of their proper representation in Congress." You might think that Vitter would avoid references to stripping, but that's another story.

I have to confess that my first reaction was surprise that the census traditionally counts noncitizens for apportionment purposes. Of course we want to have the count of everybody, because that's important information for a lot of purposes, but the main purpose of the census is to apportion the House, and for that purpose my first instinct was that only citizens would count. After all, shouldn't the size of a state's congressional representation depend on how many actual voters a state has? If two states each have 1,000,000 citizens, but one of them has an additional 250,000 noncitizens who can't vote, don't we really care about the voting populations?

But on further reflection, the matter isn't quite so simple. If you think about it, Senators and Representatives represent a whole lot of people who can't vote. Children can't vote, but no one would suggest leaving them out of the census, even though including them disadvantages states with disproportionately adult, and therefore voting, populations (Florida?). In some states, convicted felons can't vote, but they count in the census too.

You might say that these examples don't carry over to noncitizens because at least children will someday be able to vote, whereas noncitizens will never be able to vote. But in fact many noncitizens will be able to vote someday -- a lot of them are legal permanent residents who are working their way toward citizenship, and therefore toward voting rights. Even illegal immigrants might be able to vote someday if Congress regularizes their status.

So, given that all politicians represent lots of people who can't vote, and given that many noncitizens will, like citizen children, be able to vote some day, I conclude, in the end, that counting everybody makes sense. I wouldn't go so far as to say that it's constitutionally required. The Constitution says that the census shall be conducted in such manner as the Congress may direct, and I could see a rational basis for Congress to conclude that only eligible voters, or perhaps even only citizens, should count for apportionment purposes. But on balance the traditional practice of counting everybody seems correct.

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