"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."
- Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, Section 2 (ratified 1868)
The census is mandated by the Constitution
So we have a year ending in a "0" coming in a few years (2020), which means that the United States Census will be taking place again at that time. Most of us have heard of the U. S. Census before; but since many of my Facebook friends have never heard before that this is explicitly mandated by the Constitution, I thought it might be good to explain that there is a part of the Constitution that mandates having a census every ten years - not only because it's good to have accurate information about the population (for purposes of comparison with other countries), but also because the number of votes each state has in Congress - and also, the presidential elections - is determined by the official population count from the census. (Since the number of votes each state has in the presidential elections is dependent upon the number of votes each state has obtained in the Congress, I will first discuss the particulars of the Congress votes, before transitioning into how voting in the presidential elections works.)
Capitol Dome, at the building of the United States Congress
Number of votes each state gets in the House of Representatives is dependent upon this census
The number of Congressmen (or Congresswomen) each state gets in the House of Representatives, specifically, is proportioned to the populations of each state respectively. Thus, although it may be done partly for purposes of comparison with other countries' populations, this is not the only reason that it happens; since the most important reason is determining how many votes each state has in Congress - which is a big deal in determining the balance of power in the legislature (and by extension, the electoral college - but more on that later).
The Constitutional Convention, 1787
Census must be every ten years
Before I give the part of the Constitution that explicitly mandates a census, though, I should give a disclaimer that a few important parts of it - and specifically, the notorious "Three-Fifths Clause" - have since been changed by constitutional amendments; since the rules about the inclusion of slaves in the state population counts are no longer relevant to the census today; with slavery having been officially abolished in this country in 1865 (and thank God for its abolition). With that in mind, here is the quote from the Constitution itself about the census, with the word "enumeration" being the old-school word that they used for it then:
United States Constitution
Quotes from the Constitution about the census
"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 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 actual enumeration shall be made within three years after the first meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent term of ten years, in such manner as they shall by law direct. The number of representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty thousand, but each state shall have at least one representative" (Source: Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3 of the Constitution, with emphasis added).
U. S. Census Bureau regional office boundaries
Re-drawing district maps with each new census
The Three-Fifths Clause was also later changed by the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, which said that representatives shall be apportioned among the several States "counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed." (Source: Section 2). Besides the other changes resulting from the abolition of slavery by the Thirteenth Amendment, I should mention that the part about "direct taxes" was later modified by the Sixteenth Amendment in 1913, which said that the government could lay taxes on incomes "without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration" (Source: Sixteenth Amendment). I might also note one other thing about the effect of the census which is important as well, which is that when the votes of any particular state are changed by the new population count from the current census, the division of that state into particular geographical districts (for purposes of representation in Congress) is re-drawn on the electoral map; with a new set of Congressional districts that is different from the old. Sometimes that map is drawn in ways favorable to one political party, I should mention, for no other reason than that it benefits that particular party; and so we always have to be watchful that this power is not exercised for "gerrymandering" purposes to the benefit of some special interest.
Census Bureau headquarters in Suitland, Maryland
We can't have proportional representation without at least some risk of gerrymandering ...
Some criticize the Constitution for having "enabled" gerrymandering (in their words), and argue that it should be "modified" (or even discarded) on this basis. What makes this argument interesting for me is that it would seem impossible to have any amount of proportional representation, in either house, without the possibility of some gerrymandering occurring somewhere as an inevitable by-product of this arrangement. All criticisms of the Constitution that are based on gerrymandering are thus criticisms of proportional representation at their core, and thus amount to a de facto rejection of any amount of majority rule via a truly representative democracy, at least in a body with multiple members. If one argues for all power to be concentrated in one individual (as some might do), then one could indeed accomplish majority rule without dividing up our maps into districts; and this could theoretically remove the potential for gerrymandering - although I think this would be unwise in a number of ways. There are advantages to investing some of the government's power into a body with multiple members, I think, because it is not unusual for states or districts that are enemies on one issue to be allies on another issue. A body with multiple members may thus match the majority's views on more of these issues than a government composed of one person would be, because it is better-equipped to take these kinds of complexities into account than the alternative that one might propose here.
Capitol Dome at night
... and it would seem that we need some amount of proportional representation ...
Before going further, I should acknowledge that a body with multiple members will usually move more slowly than a hierarchy led by one person; and that is why the Constitution vests the executive power in a single person (the president) rather than a body of multiple people that would (presumably) move more slowly. But for some things (like making laws), the advantages of a body with multiple members would nonetheless seem to outweigh any disadvantages that might result from this. To gain these advantages, it would seem that we need some amount of proportional representation (in at least one house); since that is the only way - besides direct democracy, at least - to have majority rule in a body with multiple members. (I will not spend much time talking about direct democracy here, since I discuss it in-depth in one of my other blog posts. Suffice it to say here, though, that it doesn't work as well as representative democracy; and that interested readers are advised to consult this other blog post of mine for further arguments on that score.)
United States Capitol
... as well as equal representation
Ironically, the Constitution has also been criticized from the opposite direction for having equal representation in the Senate; because states with fewer people will have just as many Senators as states with more people (exactly two Senators for each state, to be quite precise). They also criticize the electoral college on similar grounds, I might add, for allowing presidents to be elected without a majority (or even a plurality) of the popular vote. Like many compromises before and since, the Constitution is being criticized by partisans on both sides of this struggle; and they cannot seem to agree with each other about what they dislike about the Constitution. It would thus seem that their criticisms are inconsistent with one another, and I will not spend much time replying to them all here. Suffice it to say here, though, that the "Great Compromise" over representation would seem to have balanced majority rule and minority rights in a positive way; and that it was better than a complete victory for either side would have been in this matter.
United States Capitol
Potential for changing districts when the map is re-drawn
With these comments about "gerrymandering" and representation expressed, let me conclude my "Congress" section by saying that your current Congressman (or Congresswoman) may no longer be eligible to represent your area in Congress when a new census happens; since their home may now be in a different Congressional district from yours within the state where you both live, and they may thus no longer appear on the ballot in the area where you live. They may still get re-elected in the district where they live, though; and it has happened more than once that a Congressman (or Congresswoman) elected from a district created by one census may serve again in a different district created by the next census - even when that person's home has remained in the same location all this time. Thus, the names of the candidates available in your district may change due to the re-drawing of the electoral maps; and the decision about who is the best candidate to represent your area may have to be researched all over again whenever there is a new census - if you choose to participate, of course.
The White House, where every President of the United States has lived (except the first)
Number of votes in presidential elections comes directly from the number of votes in Congress
Now for the presidential elections: the census also has an effect on voting for the presidential elections as well; since the "electoral college" is dependent upon the number of votes a state has in Congress. (This is why I discussed the Congress first, before transitioning into a discussion of the presidential elections.) Specifically, the number of electors that each state gets in these elections (which are the people that vote directly for the president) is the sum total of its Senators and Representatives; with the "Representatives" part being the one whose numbers depend on the census. (The "Senators" part, by contrast, is the same for every state, with each state having two Senators with one vote each.) The electoral college was thus a compromise between the large states and the small states on this issue, which was something of a mixture between proportional representation and equal representation because of this. The large states are still the most dominant force in the electoral college, I should make clear, and a majority (or even a plurality) of the popular vote still tends to coincide - more often than not, at least - with a victory in the electoral college. Nonetheless, there have been times when the votes of some small states have been enough to make a difference between two candidates with similar voting numbers; so the compromise over representation tends to be felt in the presidential elections as well as the Congressional elections. With this in mind, here are the relevant parts of the Constitution below:
The White House from the northern side
Quotes from the Constitution about the presidential elections
"Each State shall appoint, in such manner as the Legislature may direct, a number of electors, equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives to which the state may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or person holding an office of trust or profit under the United States, shall be appointed an elector." (Source: Article 2, Section 1, Paragraph 2 of the original Constitution, with emphasis added)
Thomas Jefferson, who became president in the unusual elections of 1800 that inspired the Twelfth Amendment
John Adams, the incumbent president who was defeated in these same unusual elections of 1800,
which inspired the passage of the Twelfth Amendment four years later in 1804
This process later modified by the Twelfth Amendment in 1804
I should mention that the next part of this paragraph was later modified by the Twelfth Amendment in 1804, which changed some of the specifics on how the electoral college works. Since the rules from this amendment are the same ones that govern presidential elections today, I shall now quote from the relevant part of this amendment as follows:
The Great Seal of the United States, with the Latin words "E Pluribus Unum" (meaning "Out of Many, One")
Quotes about the electoral college
Twelfth Amendment in the National Archives
There must be a majority of the electors (with a backup plan if no candidate has one)
The amendment continues by saying that "the President of the Senate shall, in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the certificates and the votes shall then be counted; - The person having the greatest number of votes for President, shall be the President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed" (Source: Twelfth Amendment, Section 1, with emphasis added). Likewise, the amendment says that "The person having the greatest number of votes as Vice-President, shall be the Vice-President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of electors appointed" (Source: Twelfth Amendment, Section 2) The amendment then goes on to specify what happens if none of the presidential candidates (or vice presidential candidates) have a majority of the electors, which are the backup plans to be followed if the first plans fail. Thus, the results of the U. S. Census not only have an effect on the Congress, but on the votes for the President of the United States as well. (Indirectly, they even have an effect upon the judicial branch; since federal judges have to be nominated by the president before taking office.)
Electoral votes for Washington, D. C.
Although the District of Columbia (a. k. a. Washington DC) is not a state, it is still allowed a small number of electoral votes because of the Twenty-Third Amendment (ratified 1961). Since this article references the Twelfth Amendment, this may be a good post to quote it in. Here is the quote about Washington DC:
"The District constituting the seat of Government of the United States shall appoint in such manner as Congress may direct: A number of electors of President and Vice President equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives in Congress to which the District would be entitled if it were a State, but in no event more than the least populous State; they shall be in addition to those appointed by the States, but they shall be considered, for the purposes of the election of President and Vice President, to be electors appointed by a State; and they shall meet in the District and perform such duties as provided by the twelfth article of amendment. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation." (Source: Twenty-Third Amendment)
Frequently Asked Questions:
What U. S. Congressional district do I live in, and who represents it in Washington?
How many Representatives does my state currently have?*
*To find a state's electoral votes, just add the votes from the two Senators to the number of the state's Representatives.
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The legislative branch: Two houses of Congress limited by a presidential veto
The executive branch: A varied assortment of agencies led by one president
So what exactly are the "midterm elections," anyway?
Part of a series about
Influences on the Constitution
Hobbes and Locke: Anarchy, social contract theory, and unalienable rights
The Declaration of Independence (July 4, 1776): Philosophically important
Public and private property: When can you take away someone's private property as taxes?
Representative government: The advantages of a republic over a direct democracy
Baron de Montesquieu: Theory of separation of powers and checks & balances
Convention at Philadelphia: The writing of the Constitution (1787)
States' rights: The conflict between the "several states" and the federal government
The Congress: Its power to make laws, and the president's power to veto them (in some cases)
Congress versus the president: Five limits on presidential power (besides impeachment)
Powers of Congress: A few reasons why the Congressional elections are so important
Elected officials: A few ways that the Constitution keeps our politicians under control
Frequency of elections: So how long do all of these people serve, anyway?
Representation: So who decides how many votes each state gets?
Slavery: The complicated legacy of the "Three-Fifths Clause"
The presidency: Making decisions for the police, military, and foreign diplomacy
Impeachment and removal: The most dramatic checks upon the power of presidents
The courts: "Good behaviour," some important judicial powers, and how they're appointed
Miscellaneous: Amendment process, "supreme law of the land," and some closing remarks
Debates over the Constitution, then and since
Debates over ratification: Whether to adopt the Constitution in the first place
The "Federalist Papers": Frequently asked questions about them, and why they're important
Who is "Publius"?: The secret pen name of the men who wrote the Federalist Papers
Debates over checks & balances: Do they actually conflict with separation of powers?
The Bill of Rights: Important in the debates over ratification (adopted 1791)
The First Amendment: Debates over freedom of religion, and public "establishment" of religion
The First Amendment: Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and peaceable assemblies
Rights to fair trial: Judicial restraints on the power of the police and the president
Rights of the accused: The balance between individual protections and criminal justice
Congressional pay: The amendment that never made it into the Bill of Rights
Abolishing slavery: The things that led up to the famous antislavery amendment
Backup plans: Vacancy, disability, and presidential elections without a clear majority
Voting rights: Some important amendments about who is allowed to vote in this country
Epilogue: Some thoughts about civics education
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