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Up for the Count
America comes to its census

by Bryan Zepp Jamieson
December 25, 2010

The 2010 Census is being slowly unveiled, and it's fun looking it over to see what changes and trends are taking place. The two that are getting the most press attention is that of population shift. The population of the United States is shifting westward and southward. Just as it has in every census going back to 1820. Eek. The other story was the rise of minority population, especially Hispanics. That one was slightly more surprising, since it continues a trend that has only been going on for 50 years.

So the two main stories aren't really stories at all. Or more accurately, they aren't news. In the long run, they are the defining stories of America. But as a part of the 2010 census, they come as no surprise to anybody.

A lot of noise is being made about reapportionment, especially the four Congressional seats Texas picked up. Dems have been in a perfect flap and whirl over that, since Texas is a very red state, and so it's presupposed that the Texas lege will gerrymander these into 4 safe Republican districts.

But Texas also led in population growth of minorities, and much of the rest came from blue rust-belt states. Thanks to the determined efforts of the GOP to alienate anyone who isn't white and male, a lot of these new residents are likely to vote Democratic. So it isn't a given that these will be 4 new Republican seats. In fact, it's more likely that 2, 3, and perhaps all four might go Democratic in 2012.

Apportionment is inexact, and while the typical Congressman has about 710,000 people in his or her district, that can vary by plus or minus 25%. Rhode Island is where you get the biggest bang for your federal vote, since a Congressional rep there only has 527,124 people. At the other end is Montana, where 994,416 people are needed to create one Congressman. You might think that Montana would have better Congressmen than Rhode Island with all those extra people involved, but that appears not to be the case.

Montana just missed having enough people to get a second congressman, so they got screwed on the deal. They needed a million, and came up 6,000 short. Too back they can't count cattle. Needless to say, folks in Montana aren't very happy about how the chips fell in this particular deal, but the rules have been in place for over 200 years, so nobody is going to put up much argument.

The Constitution doesn't give a high end for the number of people that a congress critter can represent. There IS a lower number: you need 30,000 people at least to form a Congressional district. If that was an upper number, as well, the population of the House would be close to ten thousand members. Voice votes would not be a popular option. But the higher the number of reps, the more accurate the representation from state to state.

Every once in a while someone thinks of this, and this being America, sues. The latest was a case, /Clemons v. Department of Commerce/, which demanded a raise in congressional reps in order to increase representation for the state of Mississippi.

The case was vacated by the Supreme Court and while the court didn't need to provide grounds for the vacancy, it doesn't take much imagining to realize that it's a separation of powers issue. Congress, and Congress alone, may determine the number of members in the House, being restricted only by the 1 for 30,000 people stipulation in the Constitution. The House could grow itself to 10,000 members without violating the 30,000 constituents rule. In theory, it could reduce its membership to just 50 voting members – one for each state – but it's a little hard to imagine representatives from states that presently have more than one representative now supporting such a plan.

One interesting thing is that while the Congress determines the number of representatives any given state will have, the states themselves determine how apportionment of districts is applied. This can lead to some very strangely shaped districts. I lived in one district that was, in effect, a band going along about 50 miles of California shoreline, never more than about 15 miles wide. Except about halfway along, where a tentacle of land, literally one foot in width, stretched across uninhabited mountains to include a medium-sized and very conservative town some 150 miles inland. It took what otherwise was a very liberal district and gave it a Republican congressman. This was back in the days when Republicans were pretty decent people, but still.

California has taken reapportionment out of the hands of the lege and given it to a independent and bipartisan panel. It will be interesting to see how that turns out.

Another way to avoid the whole issue of gerrymandering is to simply have a state, such as California, declare itself one big district, and everyone eligible to vote can vote for one of a couple of hundred candidates. The top 53 vote-getters would be California's congressional delegation. This would guarantee that people from splinter parties, such as Libertarian or Social Democrats, could work to get at least one representative in there, making the state delegation more representative of the state itself. There would still be regional interests, with people running campaigns concentrated on particular regions and geared to that regions' top interests, but they would be actual regions, and not just odd-shaped chunks on the state map. I'm in California's second district, and I would like to see someone running here who didn't promise to keep the northern central valley well-supplied with mountain water. I'm in those mountains, but most of my district is in the central valley. So we don't get much in the way of representation, and wouldn't even if our congressman hadn't long ago decided to represent major corporations instead. We have a Mormon who is friendly to Big Liquor, Big Tobacco, and Big Banks, none of which we have around here.

California, the census shows, is having a population shift of its own. Growth was, by California standards, low—10% over ten years. But most of it was in the Central Valley and the Inland Empire. Even the Sierra foothills and desert areas grew more than coastal areas.

Part of that was due to housing prices. Prior to the housing meltdown, a three bedroom suburban home could and did command over a million dollars. In fact, that was the main factor, since the coast generally has better air quality and a milder climate than the inland areas.

So the shift in California doesn't reflect the national shift. It's easy to see why people might prefer to live in Fort Lauderdale over Detroit, Augusta with its magnolias over Camden, New Jersey. But who would choose Fresno over Santa Barbara, San Bernardino over San Diego? People see the growth in the state that normally shows as red on the election maps and assume it means the state is moving rightward, but as with the national map, a change in neighborhoods doesn't mean a change in politics. The population shifts of recent years have caused such former red stalwarts as North Carolina and Orange County to go blue, as they did in 2008.

Of course, a lot more data from the census is yet to be released, and the Census Bureau has separate surveys to gauge the nation's economic health. The last one was in 2007 and showed an economy that was stagnant and anemic. The following year was the economic meltdown, of course, so the 2012 survey should be significantly grimmer.

The main census details will be online at www.factfinder.census.gov sometime in February. It will break down the population of 308 million by race, gender, and other demographic items. Political operatives will be studying the results with microscopes, looking at income, race and other factors to try and determine the political leanings of neighborhoods and even individual streets in order to determine where district boundaries ought to be drawn. Major corporations will doubtlessly be looking to see where their employees live in order to maximize their influence and own a congressman rather than just renting one. Churches and other political pressure groups, and unions will all be doing the same thing, and there will be enormous fights in those states – 40 or so – where the legislature determines Congressional and other representative districts. A massive feeding frenzy will build up, all built around trying to leverage any advantage possible in the 2012 election.

And nobody will be looking beyond that to 2016 or 2020.

For all the ferocity of the fighting, the elections will, as always, revolve around the economy, and general public satisfaction. Right now neither look to be in real great shape for 2012—the economy especially is at risk from another speculative bubble growing in oil, and massive defaults among cities and states over the next two years. Which makes most of the apportionment battles moot.

But they will be fought. Pay close attention to what your congressional district looks like in 2012, and hope you don't end up as a ineffectual counterbalance to an entirely different set of interests 150 miles from where you live.

Posted: December 31, 2010

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