How does the Census relate to my political voice?

How does the Census relate to my political voice?

By Tabitha Stickel
Ph.D. Candidate, Lifelong Learning & Adult Education
Research Assistant, Goodling Institute for Research in Family Literacy & Institute for the Study of Adult Literacy
Penn State University

The Census population count directly affects your ability to make your voice heard on the national level, both in Congress and in presidential elections.

How does the Census affect my representation in Congress?

There are 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Your state’s representatives are your voice in Congress. Do you know how many seats your state has?

The total number of seats—435—always stays the same. Those 435 seats are meant to be an accurate representation of the population distribution across the 50 states, so each seat represents the same number of people. For example, in 2010, the year of the last Census, the counted population meant there was one U.S. representative for every 710,767 people.

The number of seats that your state has in the House of Representatives depends on your state’s population as determined by the Census. The number of seats for each state, called the state’s apportionment, can change every 10 years if the Census shows that the state’s population count has changed. For example, in Arizona the population has increased over the past 50 years, so the number of representatives for the state has more than doubled, from four in 1970 to nine in 2010. In fact, the 2010 count shifted 12 Congressional seats among 18 states.

With regard to apportionment, an inaccurate Census population count within your state means two things:

  • People in your state who go uncounted are not represented equally in Congress
  • Your state’s population as a whole is not represented fully

In some cases, an inaccurate Census count for your state might also mean that your state loses a seat in the House of Representatives, or misses out on gaining an additional one.

What about presidential elections?

The Census population count also affects your state’s representation in the Electoral College (the group of people who formally select the winning presidential candidate). The number of electors for each state equals the total number of representatives and senators from that state. For example, Arizona, with nine representatives and two senators, has 11 Electoral College votes. The number of electors assigned to each state can make a big difference in presidential elections. For example, in 2000, George W. Bush won the presidency with only four more electoral votes than Al Gore.

What if I’m not eligible to vote?

The Census counts more than just registered voters. Census counts include other groups that cannot vote, like minor children, legal residents, and even undocumented individuals. The apportionment—your state’s number of representatives in Congress—is based on the total population count for your state. So even if you are not eligible to vote, participating in the Census gives you a way to participate in the U.S. political process. For all people within the United States, participating in the Census is a unique opportunity to have your political voice represented in the U.S. government.

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