The politics of being counted

July 13th, 2009 by Grace Meng

The 2010 U.S. Census has been in the news a lot lately.

A national association of Latino clergy recently announced a campaign to persuade a million of its members to boycott the 2010 U.S. Census.  They hope their boycott puts pressure on the federal government to pass legalization legislation, but they also claim that they don’t want federal money allocated and used to harass illegal immigrants.

Republican Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota also announced she and her family will be boycotting the census.  In her case, she’s refusing to answer questions because she thinks it’s outrageous that the government wants to know how long it takes you to get to work, and that ACORN, along with many other organizations and businesses, is involved in helping to carry out the 2010 census.  Also, she’s angry that the census doesn’t ask you if you’re a U.S. citizen.  (Which isn’t quite right.  It does ask you if you’re a U.S. citizen; it doesn’t ask you if you have legal status or not.)

In contrast, one group got their wish to be counted.  The Census Bureau recently announced the 2010 U.S. Census will release data on same-sex marriage.  Data on same-sex marriages has been collected for a long time, but the last administration interpreted the Defense of Marriage Act as prohibiting the release of that data.  The initial plans for the 2010 census were to “edit” the responses to recategorize same-sex marriages as “unmarried partners.”  In 1990, the bureau simply changed the gender of one person.  So the new policy means responses will be accepted as they are.

Some people want to be counted.  Some people don’t.

I’m firmly in the “count me” camp.

As Republican Representatives Patrick McHenry, Lynne Westmoreland and John Mica pointed out to Rep. Bachmann, refusing to respond to the Census is “illogical, illegal, and not in the best interest of our country.” The League of United Latin American citizens, in contrast to the Latino clergy group, is participating in a coalition of media, community groups, labor unions, and churches to urge participation in the census.  Clearly, being on the same side of the political spectrum or sharing a specific policy agenda doesn’t mean you’ll agree about the census.

It’s not that numbers are apolitical.  The Census determines how apportion federal funds and representatives for the House.  The LA Times article cites a study that argues the illegal population in California led to California gaining 3 seats in the House of Representatives, while Indiana, Mississippi, and Michigan to lose seats.  It’s all about power, which means it’s all about politics.

But political debates shouldn’t be about whether or not to be counted.  Debates should be about whether certain proposals will do what they claim, or even about whether the numbers are accurate.  To refuse to be counted altogether, when the numbers will determine so much?  It’s like refusing to vote.

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