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Killing the Census

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The census is an endangered species. Around the world, it is systematically being hunted down -- and it is now at the edge of extinction.

You might think that the census is an inoffensive creature, fretted over only by the wonkiest of bean-counters.

However, it's a very powerful animal. It has the ability to shape political fortunes. For this reason, it's deliberately being exterminated by politicians for the most cynical of reasons.

It's a sinister scheme because, in a very real sense, performing a census is the most fundamental act of any democracy.

Democracies are governments that are based upon the act of counting: counting citizens and counting votes to determine who is granted political power. Our founding fathers recognized this; barely four paragraphs after "We the people," there's an instruction to enumerate the citizenry every ten years. Yet in the US, after more than twenty decennial counts, politicians are trying to dismantle the census. The same is happening elsewhere, too -- in Canada, in the UK, and elsewhere around the globe.

In early August, the Republican National Committee passed a resolution decrying the Census Bureau's work as a "dangerous invasion": "... the Census Bureau acts exactly as a scam artist would, asking very personal questions and using fear of penalties to manipulate the respondent to answer." Earlier in the summer, Canada's Tories used similar language to justify meddling with their own census. (The head of Statistics Canada -- the organization in charge of the survey -- resigned in protest.) And in Britain, the Tory party declared that 2011 would see the very last census ever conducted in Albion, ending a two-century-old tradition.

Nevertheless, a democracy needs information about its population to function. Though British plans are still murky, it appears that they will be attempting to mine government databases rather than making a door-to-door survey. This will be much less accurate than the traditional census (after all, there are plenty of people who are doing their damnedest to stay off government lists) unless the state is willing to spend an enormous amount of time and money building an Orwell-quality system to track citizens as they move about. Canada's change to the census -- making the long version of the survey voluntary rather than mandatory -- has already been shown to increase costs and reduce reliability. (In 2003, the US experimented with a voluntary census-related survey; not only did the accuracy drop dramatically, the estimated price of the survey swelled by nearly 40 percent.)

It's not a wise policy to reduce the quality of a government function while, simultaneously, making the costs bloat out of control, but that's precisely what anti-census politicians are advocating. To understand why, it's best to look at where the attacks on the census are most nakedly partisan: right here in the United States, where the issues of counting the population are inextricably tied to battles about race and politics.

Censuses never manage to count everybody. No matter how hard they try, census workers miss hundreds of thousands or millions of people. Citizens who move about, citizens who rent homes rather than own them, citizens who don't speak English, citizens who are mistrustful of the government -- poor citizens, itinerant citizens, minority citizens -- these are the ones who are most likely to be missed. Over the years, the census bureau has been trying to improve their ability to count the undercounted. The problem arises because these people, when they vote, tend to lean to the left and vote Democratic. As a result, Republicans have been fighting to undermine the Bureau's every effort to improve the count.

They've been winning. In the late 1990s, the Republican members of the House of Representatives sued to stop the Bureau's plans to correct the undercount with statistical sampling. The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, held that sampling was unconstitutional -- that any attempt to use statistical techniques to improve the accuracy of the count went against the founding fathers' ideals. (In a later opinion, Clarence Thomas even insisted that Thomas Jefferson had a sophisticated knowledge of statistical sampling, even though the techniques date from the 20th century.) As a result, the Census Bureau is forced to report two numbers every ten years: their best estimate of the population of the United States, and a much less accurate one that determines who is represented in Congress.

This, then, is what these battles seem to be about.

Politicians are trying to kill the census in hopes of gaining an electoral advantage -- by wiping millions of opposition voters off the official rolls. There's nothing ideological going on; it's not a matter of economy or privacy or morality. (Indeed, if the roles were reversed and the undercounted leaned to the right, it's a very good bet that Labour and the Democrats would be the ones trying to kill the census.) It's merely a political dirty trick, a sleazy campaign to use phony numbers to rewrite reality. But it strikes at the heart of how our democracy -- and democracies around the world -- function.

And once these censuses are dismantled, there will be no going back.

Any protests will be too late to count.

Charles Seife is the author of "Sun in a Bottle" and "Zero," which won the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for first nonfiction book, and was named a New York Times Notable Book.

His new book, Proofiness, can be ordered here.