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Columbia Missourian

COLUMN: Filling out the census is a duty we all must fulfill

By Erin K. O'Neill
March 24, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

"Representation and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers. ... 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."  — Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution of the United States

You know you hang with nerds when filling out census forms is the talk of the town (it was all over my Twitter feed). The 10-question form arrived last week, and even after attempting to savor my first solo census experience, it took me all of five minutes. After all, there’s only one of me in my household. And I’m sure that by now my name, race, age and the fact that I rent my apartment are already back in the hands of the census people.

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This is information that is not hard to find. And these are questions that have been asked of Americans every 10 years since our fine nation was formed — 2010's is one of the shortest forms in history (we don’t ask about slaves anymore).

“The genius of the Founders was taking a tool historically used for government oppression and making it a tool of political empowerment for the governed,” Census Director Robert M. Groves wrote on his official blog. “They accomplished that goal in 1790, and we’re about to continue that tradition in 2010.”

It’s Groves’ job to be pro-census. Complaints about an inflated budget of approximately $14.7 billion are not unfounded. But I happen to think the budget is justified, especially if Groves' claim of saving $85 million per 1 percent increase in U.S. households completing and returning the form is correct.

It is perfectly constitutional for the census to ask questions related to demography. It does not violate the Fourth Amendment (see Southern Texas district court case Morales v. Daily). In 1999, the Supreme Court went so far as to describe the census as the “linchpin of the federal statistical system … collecting data on the characteristics of individuals, households, and housing units throughout the country” (see the case Dept. of Commerce v. U.S. House of Representatives).  The idea that asking if citizens own their places of residence, or what races they identify with, qualifies as an invasion of privacy (if you consider the social construct of race to be an intrusive piece of data) is slightly absurd.

Moreover, the Department of Justice confirmed that not even the Patriot Act could override the confidentiality of the information gathered by the census. The government is less respectful in looking at what books you check out at the public library (see U.S. H.R. 3162, Public Law 107-56, Title II, Sec. 215.).

The census is the backbone of our representative democracy — not just a tool for states to pork-barrel the federal government (all members of Congress want more than their fair share of the $400 billion in federal appropriations sent to their districts based on the census). The writers of the Constitution said we needed two houses of Congress to balance the power of the more populous states with the smaller states. The makeup of the House of Representatives is absolutely dependent on the results of the census. It would follow that we need to know where the population resides. Not to mention, the requirement of a census is in the third paragraph of the Constitution — which implies that it’s pretty darn important.

Consider this a friendly reminder: Fill out your census form and send it in. It’s less painful than voting. Honest.

Erin K. O'Neill is a former assistant director of photography and page designer for the Missourian. She is a master's degree candidate at the Missouri School of Journalism.