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Oppose Sen. Vitter's Amendment to Change Census Count

by Adam Fogel // Published October 15, 2009

Senator David Vitter (R-LA) introduced an amendment last week to the Commerce, Justice and Science FY10 Appropriations bill that would require the Census Bureau to ask questions about immigration status. Although FairVote does not work on immigration issues, the census in many respects is an election and voting rights issue. One of the primary reasons that the Constitution mandates a decennial census is to divvy up seats in the House of Representatives and electoral votes for president among the states. Back when the Constitution was ratified by the states (in 1788), the process worked like this:

Representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several states which may be included within this union, according to their respective numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole number of free persons, including those bound to service for a term of years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.

The "three fifths of all other persons," of course, is referring to people who were enslaved during that time. After the Civil War, the states ratified the 14th Amendment, which got rid of the "three fifths compromise." Section 2 of the amendment begins:

Representatives shall be apportioned among the several states according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each state, excluding Indians not taxed.

Senator Vitter's amendment--to only count citizens of the United States in the census instead of counting "the whole number of persons"--goes against the meaning of the 14th Amendment and is diametrically opposed to our traditions of doing the Census and the progress the United States has made since the dark days of slavery. His amendment would be a serious step back for voting rights in the United States because it would mean that for the first time since the 14th Amendment was ratified, the U.S. Census Bureau would be required by law to count certain categories of people differently than others.

In addition to these legal (and moral) reasons for opposing the Vitter Amendment, there are practical costs as well. A bi-partisan group of former Census officials released a statement saying that this amendment would "put the accuracy of the enumeration in all communities at risk and would likely delay the start of the census." If passed, the amendment would waste the $7 billion already spent on research, planning and preparation for the 2010 Census since each question must be tested to ensure a high response rate. The Vitter Amendment is problematic for both citizens and non-citizens, who would find such questions intrusive and would call into question the confidentiality and privacy of information provided to the government.

The entire civil rights community is mobilizing around opposing this amendment. Here is a letter signed by almost 40 organizations. For more information, visit The Census Project.