WASHINGTON – According to many writers in the conservative blogosphere, the census taker is second only to the taxman as the pre-eminent symbol of big government intrusion. Now several prominent Republicans, fearing the rhetoric could result in an undercount of their ranks, are trying to tamp down the census critics.
Former White House adviser Karl Rove recently made a public service announcement urging participation in the decennial headcount currently under way. Last week, Rep. Patrick McHenry, the ranking Republican on the House committee that oversees the census, issued a statement directly refuting those who claim the current census is unconstitutional.
“What worries me is blatant misinformation coming from otherwise well-meaning conservatives,” said the North Carolina lawmaker, who pointed to early statistics showing conservative counties with participation rates that trailed the national average. “Few things will make Nancy Pelosi happier than a low Republican census turnout.”
McHenry’s comment highlights the political stakes at play. The census count determines each state’s representation in Congress and the Electoral College, and the drafting of state legislative districts. It’s also the basis for distribution of billions of dollars of federal funding.
U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, a Republican from Minnesota, declared last year that she would be filling out only a part of the 10-question form, claiming the rest might be a violation of privacy rights. She later supported a resolution urging Americans to fill out the form. On his Web site, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, said he believed the census “has grown far beyond what the framers of our Constitution intended” and “raises serious questions about how and why government will use the collected information.”
Such sentiments have been disavowed by other Republicans, but they continue to swirl. Several Web sites popular with the small-government “tea party” movement offer long discussion threads on whether or not the Constitution only instructs the government to ask about the number of people in a household, and not more specific demographic information.
Most recently, the target for critics has been the American Community Survey, a longer offshoot of the census that is distributed annually.
The penalty for not filling out the ACS is the same as for not filling out the census, a fine of up to $5,000. No one has been prosecuted for noncompliance for several decades, according to the Census Bureau.