The Census Counts Everyone. So Why Shouldn’t Everyone Count?

Every 10 years, the U.S. Census Bureau seeks to count every person living in the United States. The census counts adults and children; voters, people not registered to vote, and people who cannot vote; people of all races, genders, and religions; rich people and poor people; and people living in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., U.S. territories, and on American Indian reservations. And it counts everyone residing in the United States (which excludes people visiting from other countries for tourism or business trips), whether or not they are U.S. citizens.

The fact that the census tries to count everyone is fundamental to our democracy. It reflects a principle that each person living in the United States matters and that elected lawmakers represent everyone who lives in their district.

Census results are used for many  purposes, all of which rely on an accurate count. Those include  apportionment — determining how many seats each state gets in the U.S. House of Representatives — and redistricting — drawing the lines that define electoral districts at all levels of government. They are the basis for distributing trillions of dollars in federal funds for schools, hospitals, roads, and other essential services. The data give businesses, academics, activists, and the public access to accurate information about the U.S. population.

The census is required by the U.S. Constitution, which mandates an enumeration of the population every 10 years and directs that apportionment be based on this count. This is one of the democratic innovations of our system of government: While some Framers proposed basing representation on wealth or land, the Constitution instead assigns states seats in the House of Representatives in proportion to their population. This reflects that elected officials have a duty to represent not only those who voted for them, and not only those who are eligible to vote, and not only just citizens — but everyone.

Even as the Framers designed a democratic system, they fell short of democratic principles in many ways, for example by allowing slavery to exist in the new nation and by permitting states to limit the vote to White, property-owning men. The Constitution’s census clause also originally contained the odious “three-fifths compromise,” which provided that people who were enslaved would only count as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of allocating U.S. House seats among the states.

After the Civil War, Americans added the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which repealed the three-fifths compromise and made clear that previously enslaved people were now full citizens — although our country has failed to fully live up to that promise for more than a century. In debates over the Reconstruction Amendments, some lawmakers argued for basing apportionment on voting population; in the end, Congress decided that representation would be based on the “whole number of persons.” While some proponents of excluding noncitizens from the state apportionment totals today argue that 19th century lawmakers could not have envisioned the presence of so many immigrants who would be included for representation purposes, the percentage of the U.S. population that is foreign-born today is in fact similar to what it was in the late 1800s. Members of Congress in 1866 fully understood the United States as a country of immigrants and even debated and rejected basing apportionment on the citizen population only.

Today, Congress uses census data to allocate federal funds for vital programs like highway improvement; health care, including rural hospitals; new schools; and services for veterans and senior citizens. An accurate census means that all communities get their fair share of funding. Census data are also the basis for innumerable studies of American society, business decisions, and policy advocacy, all of which depend on a complete and accurate count.

These democratic and constitutional principles are attacked and undermined by efforts to exclude noncitizens from census apportionment counts, as would a bill ironically called the Equal Representation Act, which the House passed in early May. Excluding noncitizens from apportionment would be blatantly unconstitutional and would violate the principle that elected officials represent everyone in their district.

The goal of excluding noncitizens from apportionment is also often used to justify proposals to add a question about citizenship to the census, a change that would lead to a less accurate census. Asking everyone whether they are a citizen would create a climate of fear among immigrants, including those here lawfully, and citizens with noncitizen family members, who may be concerned about the confidentiality and privacy of their responses. It would thus likely deter many immigrants and people of color from responding to the census at all, a risk the Census Bureau itself identified in studies it conducted before the 2020 Census. An inaccurate census would further skew representation, deny the intent of the 14th Amendment, distort federal funding, and ultimately provide a misleading and faulty depiction of the true nature of our society.

As we celebrate Immigrant Heritage Month, it is important to remember the contributions of immigrants throughout our history. The census recognizes their presence. A census that counts everyone is a foundation for a society and a democracy in which everyone counts. Attempts to undermine the census are attacks on that fundamental principle.