The constitution doesn’t require much participation from the American people. It protects their rights — free speech, to bear arms, a fair trial, etc – but it doesn’t even make voting mandatory. The one action it does require is for citizens to stand up and get counted, which is why every 10 years the census bureau floods the postal system with millions of forms and deploys an army of counters.
However seemingly straight forward, the census has always been a political animal. Congressional districts live and die off of its results and control of the counting is a much guarded power – witness the concern when President Obama named Republican Senator Judd Gregg to head the Commerce Department, home of the Census Bureau. Still, lawmakers, servants of the constitution, are usually known to uphold its much revered instructions. Not this year.
Two-term Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota is refusing to fully fill out her census form in protest that the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, a housing rights group known as ACORN, has been approved as one of 30,000 partners to help conduct the counting. Conservatives such as Bachmann say the group is overtly partisan and pushes the liberal agenda.
“There’s great concern that’s being raised because now ACORN has been named as one of the federal partners,” Bachmann told the Washington Times last month. “This is very concerning because the motherload of all data comes from the census.” Bachmann said she would fill out only the number of people in her household, but “we won’t be answering any information beyond that, because the Constitution doesn’t require any information beyond that.” She risks a misdemeanor charge and a fine of up to $5,000 for refusing to answer census questions.
Politifact, a Pulitzer-prize winning website, disputed Bachmann’s claim that ACORN’s involvement translates to a politicized census. “ACORN will not be ‘in charge’ of going door-to-door and collecting data from the American public, as Bachmann said. The U.S. Census will be in charge of that,” the website said. “Some of the 1.4 million people who get Census-taking jobs may learn about the job through ACORN. Workers who apply to the Census through ACORN have no better shot at the job than those who apply through any of the 30,000 other partners. That’s it.”
After failing to convince her privately, three of Bachmann’s G.O.P. colleagues wrote her an open letter last week urging her to participate in the census. “Boycotting the constitutionally mandated Census is illogical, illegal and not in the best interest of our country,” Reps. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia and Florida’s John Mica, members of the Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Information Policy, Census and National Achieves, said in the letter. “[A] boycott opens the door for partisans to statistically adjust Census results. The partisan manipulation of census data would irreparably transform the Census from being the baseline of our entire statistical system into a tool used to wield political power in Washington.”
Bachmann, who is facing a tough reelection bid, says her office has been flooded with calls and e-mails of support. But she has also been on the receiving end of some scathing editorials in Minnesota, one of them calling her a conspiracy theorist. Another wryly noted that, given Minnesota’s waning population, the state could well lose a House seat and the seat most in danger is Bachmann’s. Is it wise, therefore, to be encouraging constituents not to fill out census forms?