poly: An idealistic reason to lie to the census

From: Carl Feynman <carlf@alum.mit.edu>
Date: Thu Mar 19 1998 - 09:31:10 PST

[A preface for the non-US polymaths out there: In America, a census is
conducted every ten years, to determine (among other things) the population
of each state. The next one is in 2000. States are then allocated
representation in the House of Representatives according to their
population. The bigger the state, the more representatives they get. Each
state is divided into districts of roughly equal population; each district
elects one representative. The same procedure is used to allocate
districts for most state legistatures. Note that allocation is by
population, not number of registered voters.]

The Republicans in congress are currently working to make sure that the
Census Bureau is not allowed to use certain well-understood statistical
techniques in order to correct for a persistent undercount of poor people.
Since poor people tend to live in pro-Democrat districts, the present
undercount is advantageous to the Republicans.

While fuming about this perversion of democracy, I came up with the
following amazing meme:

Under the right circumstances, a partisan idealist would feel justified in
concealing his or her existence from the Census Bureau. Suppose I am a
liberal Democrat who lives in Texas, a notably non-liberal state. If I
conceal myself from the Census, I will be slightly increasing the chance
that Texas will have a congressional delegation of only 25 rather than 26.
The other delgate will go to some state that is more likely to be liberal,
say Massachusetts, which might go from 11 to 12. Conversely, if I am a
conservative Republican living in Massachusetts, I would conceal myself,
hoping the extra delegate would go to Texas.

Because of the use of national census data to apportion the boundaries of
voting districts for both federal and state legislatures, it's worthwhile
to conceal yourself as long as you disagree with the political stances of
those residing in your area, even if you don't disagree with the state as a
whole. (http://www.census.gov/clo/www/requirements.html)

It's pretty easy to conceal yourself from the census-- most people just get
a form in the mail from them. If you fail to send it back, you get a visit
from a census taker. But if you send it back claiming that only one person
lives in your house when there are actually five, they'd have a hard time
checking up on you. If you refuse to talk to them, I don't know what
happens. But their goal is to only miss 10% of households, so it shouldn't
be very hard to be in that 10%. (http://www.census.gov/dmd/www/strat4-2.html).

Naturally, such behavior would only be acceptable to an idealist who valued
partisan legislative influence above the percieved integrity of the
democratic system. But I suspect there are plenty of them. Imagine an
advertising campaign targeted at liberals in conservative states: "Newt
Gingrich has slanted the census to miss poor black people in the inner
cities! But you can help redress the balance and make America a fairer
place! Do your part! Don't send back the form to the Republican Census

If this really caught on, it would make American democracy even more
perverse than it is now.

Received on Thu Mar 19 17:33:49 1998

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