THE NUMBERS RACKET

Posted in Rants on April 21st, 2009 by Ed

Last week I had my first professional success in the world of political science, as one of the better-known academic journals accepted one of my submissions for publication. It deals with projections of population change in the 2010 and 2020 Censuses (yes, "censes" is also acceptable) and what that will mean for Congressional apportionment and the Electoral College. I've accumulated more experience with and knowledge about the Census and American population dynamics than the average Joe in political science. Allow me to share what I've learned: the Census is seriously fucked up. And what do you know, most of the existing flaws benefit the conservatives who are screaming like tea kettles about the insidious Obama Census plans.

The right is well into their predictable pant-shitting hysterics about the President's decision to have the director of Census 2010 reporting directly to the White House. How this is appreciably different than having him report to the Commerce Secretary, a person hand-picked by and reporting directly to the President, is unclear. How this is appreciably different from the four years that the Congressional GOP spent trying to pass legislation in the 1990s to monkey with Census 2000 is unclear. It's not like the potential for political manipulation isn't real – the Census is laden with latent flaws that benefit the GOP.

Shocking, I know.

The root problem is that the traditional image of the Census-taker going door-to-door and taking a head count of each American became a logistical impossibility more than a century ago. That may have worked in 1790 but it goes without saying that it is not feasible in modern America. Thus the Census is forever dealing with the problem of how to count people who can't physically be counted. The GOP has a simple answer: don't. As the undercounting is vastly more prevalent in densely-packed urban areas, statistical adjustments to account for the uncounted are called a sinister Democrat ploy.

While "sampling" – projecting a large population based on a small sample – is not permitted, the Census does use a statistical technique called hot deck imputation to fill in missing data points. After an address has not returned the Census form and after the Census-takers have made multiple visits to the address without contact, the Bureau will impute the data based on neighborhood characteristics. In other words, they can't extrapolate but they can fill in a few blanks. The constitutionality of this technique was affirmed by the Supreme Court in Utah v Evans (2002). Imputation has little partisan impact (the awarding of the final Census 2000 Congressional seat to North Carolina instead of Utah was not only a wash for the GOP but a fluke – it could have been almost any two states) but sampling, which would produce a more complete population count, does. Therefore the inverse is also true – not sampling has a partisan impact that hurts Democrats.

The right are also in hysterics about Obama's devious plan to "count every illegal alien" as Skeletor Michelle Malkin shrieks. Here's Dirty Secret #1 about the Census: they've always counted illegal and legal immigrants. The Census is a count of the number of people in a box. Distinctions are not made between voter and non-voter, adult and child, citizen and non-citizen. The bile-spewing reaction this fact produces on the right is exactly as you would expect, but…OK, Michelle. Who do you think is benefitting from this? Let's stop counting non-citizens and see what happens to the population counts in Texas, Arizona, Florida, and across the plains (where immigrant labor in agriculture, meatpacking, and manufacturing subsidizes the entire economy). While California would also take a hit, overall, "Red America" is the beneficiary of this little-reported fact.

And here comes the best part: prisons. The GOP never has a problem with the ridiculous way the Census counts prisons. Throughout the country we stick our giant carceral warehouses in rural (read: economically desperate, willing to do anything to get state cash flowing through the streets of Podunk) communities who subsequently see their populations increase by five or ten thousand. These new "residents" have no political rights, of course, but the human chattel comes in handy when it's time to draw legislative district boundaries! What, like Susanville, California would be important without its four CDC facilities? Right.

The Census procedures are well on their way to becoming the next big thing in the uniquely American art of fucking up what should be very simple: counting stuff. What pregnant chads and Diebold EVMs did for the past decade the Census will do for the next several years. Those extra Congressional seats, Electoral Votes, and Federal dollars are vitally important and partisans are willing to fight for them in the streets, in Congress, and in court. Any level of political manipulation in the Census process is undesirable, but as ultraconservatives ramp up their poorly-informed jihad against liberal scheming it is worth remembering that the status quo is absolutely riddled with holes and – coincidentally, I'm sure – tilts the process in favor of the Welfare Queen States of red America.