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Director of Congressional Relations at the National Archives discusses the United States Census

<lution is in the Air” was the title of David McMillen’s convocation address, advertised across campus on striking posters featuring a black silhouette of the Statue of Liberty against a bold red-striped background. As students drifted into the Chapel last Friday to the sounds of the Beatles’ “Revolution,” they could be excused for wondering if this wasn’t a rather dramatic way to dress up a talk on a prosaic topic: that dry decennial exercise in statistics known as the U.S. Census.

McMillen, External Affairs Liason and Director of Congressional Relations at the National Archives and Records Administration, is used to encountering skepticism towards his area of expertise. He opened his remarks by relating a conversation he had on the flight to Minneapolis with a fellow passenger, who expressed surprise that McMillen was giving an hour-long talk on the Census.

“I could talk for hours about the Census,” McMillen explained. “Please don’t,” the passenger replied.

So McMillen took pains to justify to the audience why they should pay any attention to the Census. As he flipped through slides depicting the guillotine and Che Guevara, he explained that the Census is a tool of revolution, a fundamental component of the peaceful transfer of power from one group to another that Americans take for granted.

The Founding Fathers determined that in the House of Representatives, delegates would be apportioned to each state proportional to its population. It was necessary, then, to determine exactly how many people are in the United States and where they live. Thus was born the Census, which the Constitution mandates be conducted every ten years.

It sounds straightforward enough, and Thomas Jefferson himself was appointed to run the first census. But the results he got were not to his satisfaction. For one thing, the total population of the U.S. came in at 3.9 million and change, just shy of the 4 million that George Washington wanted in order to project American military power overseas. For another, Virginia’s population was not quite large enough to justify the number of representatives that Jefferson wanted.

If Thomas Jefferson couldn’t conduct the Census free of political considerations, you can imagine what a mess later, lesser mortals have made of it.

“The Census is a highly political activity — not a statistical activity,” McMillen explained.

“Politics is not a bad word,” he went on to say. “Politics is people sitting down with disparate ideas and working out a compromise.”

Still, it seemed from McMillen’s talk that the kind of politics involved in the U.S. Census tended to be less of the sit-down-and-compromise variety, and more of the dirty-tricks-and-self-preservation variety.

In the nation’s early years, the House of Representatives grew with each reapportionment in order to protect the seats of incumbent congressmen. In 1910, the size of the House was finally capped at 435 members. But when the results of the 1920 Census came in, showing a substantial shift of population from the countryside to the cities, Congress responded by simply refusing to reapportion seats.

In 1930, Congress succeeded in passing a reapportionment bill, but a key phrase that had appeared in earlier reapportionment bills, requiring congressional districts to be approximately equal in population, was removed. Now, the size and shape of districts could be freely manipulated in order to deny power to urban areas.

Court cases in the 1960s mandated a return to equal-sized congressional districts. But since then, the Census has continued to undercount the underprivileged urban population.

This undercount is not accidental, nor is it unavoidable, McMillen argued. He spoke of his efforts during the Clinton administration to improve the accuracy of the count, and the resistance put up by congressional Republicans who did not see it in their best interests to give full representation to underprivileged urban people.

The Democrats, to be fair, were often working from similarly partisan motives: “They F-ed us in 1990, and we’re going to F them in 2000,” was how McMillen characterized the remarks of one official in the Clinton commerce department.

“The Census Bureau crowed about the 2000 Census,” McMillen said. The 2000 Census allegedly counted 99.9% of the American population. But in fact, approximately 6 million people were missed, while another 6 million were counted twice, and those who were counted twice differ substantially from those who were not counted at all. The double-counted tend to be well-off enough to have two residences — students attending college out-of-state, for example, or vacation home owners.

McMillen then described his work with President Obama’s transition team, trying to develop a plan to salvage the 2010 Census, which is on track to cost twice as much per household as the 2000 Census while failing to address the persistent urban undercount.

“The Census can be saved,” McMillen said. “The Census is about mobilization.”

He drew a parallel between the Census and the Obama campaign’s voter mobilization effort, which brought many voters from underrepresented groups to the polls for the first time. He said that the best way to get an accurate count is to involve community organizations, and encourage students to apply for jobs with the Census Bureau, adding that “they pay pretty well.”

McMillen concluded his speech by referring back to the ideals of the Founding Fathers, from whose principle of “one person, one vote” emerged the need for a comprehensive, accurate accounting of all the people who live in the United States.

If McMillen didn’t quite justify his assertion that the Census, like the guillotine, is a tool of revolution, he certainly gave his audience good reason to cast a skeptical eye towards those once-a-decade population figures that purport to be the product of pure, unbiased statistics.

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