The foundational principle of American government is popular sovereignty, as in “We, the People.” Through a system of “successive filtrations,” James Madison said at the Federal Convention, a “great fabric” of government could be raised—but it needed to “rest on the solid foundation of the people themselves,” who would elect representatives to serve in Congress. It was a grand idea, but only an “actual Enumeration” could determine how many representatives each state was entitled to. Without a fair, accurate, and periodic census, Madison’s “great fabric” would lose its underpinnings. Other ruling bodies had counted heads before, but none had made a point to count all of the people (rather, say, than males eligible for military service) to determine political representation. It took a census to empower the people.
The framers never imagined that counting the population could be politicized, yet Republicans today have a vested interest in minimizing the final tab. Most of those least likely to be included—minorities, immigrants, the poor, the homeless, and even renters—live in overwhelmingly Democratic census blocks. A low count in those districts lessens the number of representatives in federal, state, and local governments. By failing to account for these people, the Census Bureau could put a finger on the scale.
A motive certainly exists, but is there actually a crime?
There might be soon. President Trump’s supposed pick to lead the 2020 census is Thomas Brunell, a political science professor with no training in data collection but a history of testifying on behalf of Republicans facing legal challenges to gerrymandering. Brunell’s particular claim to fame is his book, Redistricting and Representation: Why Competitive Elections are Bad for America, published in 2008. Brunell argues that in districts with heavy majorities for one party, more people will have the representative of their choice. This will lead to an increase in “voter satisfaction” and trust in government.