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
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
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
"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
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
With this warning about the potential for "gerrymandering" 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)
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 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. Here are the relevant quotes below:
The White House from the northern side
"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
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")
Twelfth Amendment in the National Archives
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). The amendment then goes on to specify what happens if none of the presidential candidates have a majority of the electors, which is the backup plan to be followed if the first plan fails. 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.
Frequently Asked Questions:
What is the status of Washington, D. C. in the electoral college? Does it get any votes?
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.
If you liked this post, you might also like:
The legislative branch: Two houses of Congress limited by a presidential veto
The executive branch: A single president subject to impeachment and removal
So what exactly are the "midterm elections," anyway?
Part of a series about
The Constitution itself, and the story behind it
Convention at Philadelphia: The writing of the Constitution (1787)
Preamble: The Constitution's mission statement, with some thoughts about separation of powers
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)
Powers of Congress: A few reasons why the Congressional elections are so important
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: Powers of the executive, and their being subject to impeachment
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
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 Constitution today: Some thoughts about civics education
← Previous page: Frequency of elections - Next page: Slavery →