I really like the U.S. Constitution. I’ve spent a good bit of time studying that remarkable document, and I taught it to AF Academy cadets for over 17 years. One of the most remarkable things about our Constitution — the longest-surviving written constitution in world history — was the ability of the Founders to write a document that is specific enough to clearly state certain principles (e.g., national election day will be the same day for the whole country) and also leaves room for evolution (e.g., setting up post offices as needed). Sure, there are lots of things about which we argue, constitutionally, but most Americans would agree that our Constitution is a good thing. I recommend you re-read it from time to time, and here’s a link to a copy.
I was thinking about the Constitution when I read a story about the upcoming census and an argument about a question that may end up, one way or the other, directly impacting Colorado. A national census is one of those things the Founders were clear about. In Article 1 Section 2 (right up front) the Constitution states: "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." That means simply that the first national census would be three years later, in 1790, and every 10 years thereafter. Note that the Founders knew that a census was important, but they also understood that a government must change with the times, and as a result the actual running of the census would be “as they shall by Law direct.” That means, for example, that the questions in a census can be refined and tuned for the times. For example, it likely isn’t important in 2020 to ask each person how many oil lamps they have in their home.
The Founders understood that the role of the government is to serve the people, and it can serve them best when the government has correct and up-to-date information about the people. This is especially important to Colorado. Like other states, the money our lovely state gets in the form of federal grants and payments is often directly related to the number of folks that are here.
Which is why a Trump administration proposal that sounds very innocuous is actually a big deal. The Trump folks want to ask each person whether or not they are a U.S. citizen. Seems totally reasonable and fair, right?
Not so much…
You see, the census is supposed to be an enumeration, that is to say, a complete and carefully gathered count of everyone living here. In football, for example, the referee will throw a penalty flag if a team has more than 11 players on the field during a play. It doesn’t matter which of the, say, 12 players was “legal” and which was the “illegal” player, the key is to count everyone.
But what harm can come from asking everyone if they are a citizen or not? Wouldn’t we like to have that data? Sure. The problem is that a citizenship question would likely cause some folks, here illegally, to dodge the census taker and not be counted. Again, why would that be a problem? Well, let’s take a law-and-order point of view (I’m a former military cop). Let’s say that Colorado is competing for federal funding for more state patrol officers. That generally means that the more people you have in Colorado, the more money you get from the feds to fight crime. Consequently, if you don’t count illegal folks, you may undercount Colorado’s population and thus we get fewer bucks to hire cops and fight crimes, including those committed by illegals (though, fun fact, illegals actually commit fewer crimes than good old Americans do.)
Colorado gets about one-third of its budget from the feds, and those monies help pay for education, highways, health care and more. In 2016, roughly $13 billion given to Colorado was based on our 2010 census data. A full count of everyone is a very good thing for us overall.
So, what’s the big deal? The problem with the “innocent” question is that if you decrease census participation, you just might be able to decrease minority participation and thus fewer (usually Democrat-leaning) people in the state. That in turn impacts how and where they redraw the congressional district lines. Think that isn’t important? Ask Mike Coffman.
Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.