The U.S. Census is an enterprise that is fundamentally tied to political institutions and processes. Although most of the data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau—either in the form of the decennial census, the American Community Survey, or the Current Population Survey—is decidedly apolitical, there are important ways in which politics has shaped the work of the U.S. Census Bureau, and ways in which the decennial census has important implications for politics. This research will examine both these aspects, of politics as cause and consequence, as they relate to the census.
In tackling the question of how politics has informed the work of the decennial census, we will focus on two contemporary debates. One debate relates to the ways that noncitizens and prisoners are counted for apportionment, which brings up fundamental questions about the meaning of citizenship and political representation in the United States.
Second, the politics of census measurement – the undercount and attempts to correct for it – touches upon questions of apportionment and redistricting: political representation, public administration, federal power and federal policy. Debates over the legality, constitutionality, and cost effectiveness of statistical sampling as a substitute for actual counts of the population have raged since the 2000 Census, with no signs of slowing. During the 2010 Census, advocacy groups on both the right (pushing against federal government intrusion) and the left (pushing for comprehensive immigration reform) called for a boycott of the census.
Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court established the principle of “one person, one vote” in the drawing of political districts, the census has generated a decennial scramble in the redrawing of political districts ranging from the U.S. House of Representatives to state legislatures and city councils. Redistricting can change the outcome of elections, the political power of states, political parties, and elected officials.
Finally, this study will consider the indirect political implications of the census, especially declarations about the size of racial minority groups. Media analysts and community advocates often use evidence of “majority-minority status” as an indicator for the political ascendancy of particular groups. However, the political impacts of such demographic milestones are strongly mediated by differential rates of political participation, variations in party identification and vote choice, and by the intervention of political institutions such as parties and courts. Thus, in order to fully understand the political implications of census reports, we need to go well beyond demographic patterns and trends, and instead examine the ways in which patterns of political behavior and political processes shape the influence of such trends on politics.