As the federal government ramps up its hiring at the Census Bureau to complete the decennial obligation, conservatives have also ramped up the debate over its use and its composition. A movement to refuse to answer the race/ethnicity question has already gained some steam, while some have counseled against answering the questionnaire at all. Rep. Patrick McHenry, a conservative Republican from North Carolina, scolds such advocates for failing to adhere to the Constitution — and for inadvertently damaging conservative prospects in the future:
I’m not worried about ACORN rigging the count – we already succeeded in kicking them out of the census. I’m not worried about the President’s attempt to run the census out of the White House – we beat that power grab back last year. I’m not even worried about privacy – this year’s 10-question census form is the shortest in memory.
No, what worries me is blatant misinformation coming from otherwise well-meaning conservatives. They are trying to do the right thing, but instead they are helping big government liberals by discouraging fellow conservatives from filling out their census forms.
Early census returns are showing that conservatives have been measurably less likely than liberals to return their census forms. A recent article in the Houston Chronicle points out that conservative Texas is way behind the national average in returning census forms and some of the lowest rates are in Texas’ most conservative counties. [Update: Since the Houston Chronicle article was published, the average national census participation rate has increased to 52 percent and the rates in each of the counties mentioned in the article have increased to the following, still very low, rates: King County, 25 percent; Briscoe County, 33 percent; Culberson County, 22 percent; Newton County, 30 percent.]
Few things make will make Nancy Pelosi happier than large numbers of conservatives failing to respond to the census. If we do not respond, we will not be counted and if we are not counted, then we effectively will not exist. That would reduce conservatives’ power in elections, allow Democrats to draw more favorable congressional boundaries and help put more tax-hiking politicians in office.
McHenry doesn’t have much patience for the complaints about demographic questions, noting that the Constitution gives Congress the authority to draft the questions, and that such questions go back to the very first Census efforts in the US:
History also makes clear that this argument is completely unfounded. Every census in U.S. history has asked for more information than a simple count. In fact, the most private question on this year’s form asks for an individual’s race and that question has been asked by every census since the 1790 census conducted under then-President George Washington. To suggest that this question or others like it make this year’s census unconstitutional is absurd.
I suspect that the motivations back then may have been a little different than those in recent Censuses, but the point is well taken. As McHenry says, conservatives tend to argue for a strict-constructionist reading of the Constitution. The Census is one of the few federal exercises that actually has a basis in the Constitution these days, and the language appears to give Congress very wide latitude in conducting it:
The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct. (Article I, Section 2, Clause 3)
I’m always a little suspicious of questionnaires on ethnicity, but the Census has a Constitutional mandate — and it has far-reaching consequences. People in states where conservatives outstrip liberals could be committing political suicide if a boycott effort results in shortchanging those states in Congressional representation to the benefit of states like California, New York, Washington, and Massachusetts. It seems better to ensure that an accurate count gets taken by a concerted effort to count conservatives than the results a boycott or a “slowcott” would produce.
Of course, people may disagree on this topic. Here’s a poll for Hot Air readers, which I hope covers the range of responses: