Census: Its links to Covid-19, seats in Congress, Maine statehood

Next week, we may find one small benefit in Covid-19.

On April 1, the nation’s census is to be taken, and more people are likely to be staying home than would be normal. Because people are supposed to be counted by where they live, that could make the census more accurate.

The number people in the country are counted, as required by the Constitution, so that seats in the House of Representatives can be distributed fairly among the states. As the population shifts, states may gain or lose seats, though no state may have less than one.

The constitutional rule is that the census counts all the people, not only citizens or voters. The most obvious reason for this rule is that government affects everybody, whether or not they can vote for members of the House.

At the time the Constitution was drafted, women, children, and almost all people of African descent did not have the right to vote. But they were counted, though a slave counted then as only a fraction of a free person. Indians on reservations were not counted.

Today’s census counts everybody, including foreigners, legal or otherwise, unless they are diplomats. The Constitution covers the rights of people, not citizens, so laws apply to everybody. Beyond that, the census influences federal government financial aid to states based on the number of inhabitants.

Every state wants as much influence as it can gain in the federal government, so the census, taken every ten years, is critically important. The House members elected in 2022 will be allocated according to the population counted next Wednesday. That allocation will last until 2032. Maine wants you to be counted.

How big is the congressional pie that will be divided? When the Constitution was drafted, George Washington insisted that districts should be as small as possible. He wanted to keep government close to the people.

There are now 435 seats in the House, a number that has not changed in a century. Meanwhile the population of the country has almost tripled according to the 2010 census.

Congress can change the number of House members, but it has refused to act. Some small states would lose influence in an enlarged House, so they resist change. Some worry that, if the House grew larger, it would be unmanageable. Added cost is a relatively small worry, because the cost of Congress is a microscopic part of the federal budget.

Each of the smallest states gets a guaranteed House seat. Because districts do not cross state lines, the allocation of seats among states must be rounded off. The result of both these factors is that some districts are far more populous than others. Right now, the Montana, with a single district, has close to twice as many people as one of the Rhode Island districts.

The problem could be greatly reduced, though not completely resolved, by a simple act of Congress. Each district could be made to have the same population as the population of the single-district state with the smallest population. In effect, that would eliminate the special weight given to the smallest states. The equal representation of states in the Senate would remain.

In that case, the House would increase in size by only about 110 members. Rounding would remain, but its impact would be reduced. A voter in Montana would count more nearly as much as a voter in Rhode Island.

State districts must meet the requirement of “one person, one vote.” Each state district has the same population. Enlarging the size of the House would ensure that rule was also applied to the country as a whole to the fullest extent possible.

The two most obvious results would be greater fairness and a lot of new faces in Congress. And enlarging the House would be a useful step in keeping Congress closer to the people.

The first census was directly relevant to Maine statehood, now celebrating its 200th anniversary.

At the 1788 Massachusetts convention to ratify the Constitution, leaders worried that Maine delegates would reject the draft because it required a state’s consent to the loss of any of its territory to create a new state. If Mainers opposed the Constitution on this point, Massachusetts might not have had enough votes for ratification. A majority of Maine delegates voted in favor.

That concern was a strong indication that all knew that Maine was on track to become an independent state.

Just two years later, in the 1790 census, Maine was counted separately from the rest of Massachusetts. Vermont and Kentucky, also census districts but not states, were similarly counted separately. All three became states.

It was up to Maine and Massachusetts to make the split. Maine decided to leave the Bay State after Massachusetts failed to help against the British invasion in the War of 1812. Massachusetts was willing to see Democratic Maine depart, reducing the threat to Federalist Party rule in the Commonwealth. In 1820, Congress used Maine, a free state, to balance Missouri, a slave state, in enlarging the Union.

The census plays a central role in America’s history and government. It’s important for you to be counted so you will count in that history.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.