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Census

The US Capitol

Photo by Jing Xi Lau on Unsplash

The preliminary 2020 census count has been released, and as usual, it means that when it comes to congressional representation, some states will gain and some will lose. Illinois is one of seven states that will suffer a shrinkage of their House delegations. But the zero-sum nature of this game is not a necessary feature, and it's not a good one.

The reason states are pitted against one another every 10 years is that the nation's population has steadily grown but the House has not. It has been frozen at 435 seats since 1911, even though the number of people in America has more than tripled. Back then, the typical member represented 212,000 people. Today, it's 761,000.

The current number has no basis in the Constitution. The framers meant for the House to grow over time, and it did — from 141 in 1803 to 293 in 1873 to 357 in 1893. The only constitutional limit is that there can be no more than one representative per 30,000 people. James Madison wrote confidently that "the number of representatives will be augmented from time to time in the manner provided by the Constitution."

The author of the Federalist No. 52 (either Madison or Alexander Hamilton) said that each member should have "an immediate dependence on, and an intimate sympathy with, the people." There is nothing intimate about a relationship with 761,000 people. It may be no coincidence that only 37 percent of Americans know the name of their representative.

Some districts are physically enormous. New Mexico has one that occupies 71,000 square miles. Texas has one that stretches across 550 miles. But nothing tops the one that is the size of Alaska — because it comprises all of that state, which is 2,261 miles wide. Six other states have just one representative.

Expanding the House would mean members would be better able to serve the needs of their constituents, because they wouldn't have so many to serve. Helping people grapple with problems related to the federal government, such as getting veterans benefits or securing Paycheck Protection Program loans, makes up the bulk of what occupies congressional offices.

Less populous districts would also make it easier for members of Congress to get to know the communities and people they represent, and vice versa. It would provide fast-growing states with additional seats without depriving slower-growing states of the ones they have.

In the latest YouGov poll, only 25 percent of Americans approve of how Congress is doing its job. I know what you're thinking: If I don't like the people in Congress, why would I want more of them?

But more House seats would reduce the size of districts, making them more cohesive. Rural voters would be less likely to be lumped with distant urbanites. Minority populations would have a better chance of electing people attuned to their particular interests. Campaigns would be less expensive. Who knows? Better people might get elected.

Expanding the House would align the Electoral College more closely with public sentiment. Each state gets as many electoral votes as it has members of Congress. Increasing the number of House seats would mean more populous states would get a say in choosing the president that is more proportionate to the number of voters they have. It would reduce the grossly outsized voting strength of small states.

You might assume that a bigger House would be impossibly unwieldy. But other countries have lawmaking bodies that function well despite being much larger than ours.

The German Bundestag seats 709 people. The 650 members of Britain's House of Commons serve a country the size of Oregon. Each member represents about 100,000 people, less than one-seventh the number represented by the average U.S. House member. No other wealthy democracy has as high a ratio of citizens to national legislators as we do.

How big should the U.S. go? Under an option that says no district shall have more people than the least populous state (Wyoming, with 576,851 people), the House would grow to 545 members. An expansion on that scale would bring in a lot of fresh faces and ideas while changing the dynamics of a body that has gotten too far from the American people.

If the House had grown with the population as the framers expected, it would have 11,000 members. That would be too many. But 435 is way too few.

Steve Chapman blogs at http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chapman. Follow him on Twitter @SteveChapman13 or at https://www.facebook.com/stevechapman13. To find out more about Steve Chapman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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Reprinted with permission from Alternet

The official government forms for the 2020 U.S. census haven’t been mailed yet, but the Republican National Committee (RNC) is being slammed by critics for mailing out a mock-Census questionnaire that bears some resemblance to a census form.

The RNC questionnaire, according to Los Angeles Times reporter Sarah D. Wire, is labeled “2020 Congressional District Census” and contains “a lengthy questionnaire on blue-tinted paper similar to the type used by the real Census.” And RNC critics, Wire reports, view the forms as a dirty trick “designed to confuse people and possibly lower the response rate when the count begins in mid-March.”

“Unlike the official Census form,” Wire explains, “the RNC survey is largely made up of political questions, such as whether the respondent supports using military force against Iran, thinks race relations in the country are getting worse and believes ‘political correctness’ has gotten out of hand.”

The RNC is chaired by Ronna McDaniel, niece of GOP Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah.

One critic of the RNC questionnaire is Daniel Wessel, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee (DNC) who denounced it as “intentionally deceptive” and “reprehensible.” Wessel noted that the DNC also sends out surveys but stressed that it doesn’t try to fool people into thinking that they are official U.S. Census forms.

Wire reports, “With billions of dollars in federal funding on the line and a chance that California could lose a seat in Congress based on the Census results, critics worry some residents will fill out the mock Census document and ignore or throw away the real one.”

Rep. Katie Porter of California told the Los Angeles Times she feared that recipients of the RNC’s questionnaire would “toss their actual Census envelope because they’ve already filled this one out…. We want everyone to be responding to the actual 2020 Census. There is a real risk of harm here.”

This isn’t the first time Republicans have tried to deceive Americans with a mock-Census form: the RNC, Wire reports, sent out “similar mailers” in 2010 — which led to the Prevent Deceptive Census Lookalike Mailings Act. However, the RNC appears to have found a way around that legislation.

“The law bars non-government groups from sending solicitations with the word ‘census’ on the envelope through U.S. mail,” Wire notes. The most recent RNC mailer does not use the word ‘census’ on the envelope, though it is used repeatedly on the mailer itself.”

Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-CA) told the Times, “Anything that confuses people, that makes them think they’ve actually filled out the Census, could cause them not to fill out the official Census when it comes. It’s something that could undermine the count.”

The United States Census Bureau has posted an actual copy of its 2020 Census online.