Who Counts? Whose Voice is Heard?

The Trump Administration’s recent request to add a citizenship question to the upcoming 2020 Decennial Census has revived a contentious debate concerning the rights and privileges of political voice and power in our democracy. This debate, and the ugly compromises embedded in our country’s founding documents, are often centered around a simple question: In a representative democracy, who counts, and whose voice is heard in the halls of Congress or in our state and local governments?

Though the current answer to this question is more inclusive since our founding, the intentions of this latest effort, particularly in the backdrop of rhetoric and a contentious debate surrounding the issue of immigration, should cause us to reflect seriously upon what values and principals will guide the future of our democracy.

All this points to the importance of having an accurate 2020 Decennial Census.

The significance of the results is hard to overstate: a comprehensive count of all the people in the U.S. portends a shakeup of political power and voice that affects every facet of our lives. Through a process known as apportionment, 435 seats in the House of Representative will be allocated across 50 states in time for the 2024 presidential and congressional elections (U.S. territories and the District of Columbia have a representative, but not an actual vote in Congress). Some states are aggressively pursuing strategies to avoid the loss of a congressional seat, while other states are eagerly and confidently anticipating one or more new seats.

The factors influencing the potential shakeup of congressional apportionment are complicated; they include recent natural disasters (e.g. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria), immigration and migration patterns, the lingering effects of the Great Recession and the housing crisis and, increasingly, the availability of jobs.

Defending its request to add a citizenship question to the Census, the Trump administration defends its efforts by suggesting it needs more data to properly enforce the Voting Rights Act; skeptics and immigration rights advocates suggest that the natural consequence will be lower response rates (leading to a more expensive survey) and heightened distrust and anxiety among both legal immigrants and undocumented populations. Most controversial, however, is the idea advanced by a small contingent of congresspersons that it would wholly exclude the count of undocumented residents for the purposes of apportionment—a debate that combines hardline immigration policy with a political calculus driven by an effort to curtail the influence of more urbanized and coastal communities that are home to substantial portions of immigrant and undocumented populations.

To tackle the complex intersection of issues that are core to the work we do at MDC, this post will serve as the first in a five-part series about the 2020 Census, and more broadly an examination of country’s history of who gets counted and whose voice is heard.

The five themes covered will include a Southern perspective on congressional representation (through apportionment) and political power, gerrymandering, immigration, and race. The final post will discuss how the continually eroding trust in our core institutions, like the Census, threatens to jeopardize community-driven efforts to build an inclusive and an equitable Infrastructure of Opportunity. In each of these pieces, we aspire to offer a positive vision for how the South can acknowledge its unique role as home to our country’s most painful history, and more importantly, how we can emerge as a region that is increasingly characterized by equity and opportunity for all.

In this first post, we’ll discuss the controversial origin of the South’s political power (e.g. congressional representation) and how the continued growth of the region portends considerable influence in shaping the country’s direction for decades to come.

How the institution of slavery propped up the South’s political power

In prioritizing the formation of a stable government over addressing the issue of slavery following the Revolutionary War, our country’s founders came to what is now commonly called the “Great Compromise.” To win over a powerful contingent of Southern representatives to the Constitutional Convention, our country’s founders created a bi-cameral legislature with a House, where membership was determined by state population, and a Senate that would have two representatives regardless of population.

Underlying this compromise, however are the origins of our country’s original sin—a twisted logic that counted slaves (as well as women) as persons for the purposes of congressional apportionment, without conferring the same rights or privileges as white men. The relevant section of the Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution reads:

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons. [italics added]

 The first census in 1790 was a count of the U.S. population by U.S. marshals who recorded the name of the head of household and the count of persons using only five categories: the number of free white males (under and over age 16), free white females, all other free persons, and slaves. The Census results produced the first clear portrait of the institution of slavery—a system of oppression and economic dependence that the South, which was home to the clear majority (78 percent) of slaves living in the U.S., was desperate to keep in place.

With only 65 House seats at play for apportionment, the region ended up securing 23 (or 35 percent) of the seats—a result that solidified a voting block that effectively rejected sustained efforts to dismantle the institution of slavery. It took another 73 years, with the election of President Abraham Lincoln, and the secession of Southern states from the Union, that ultimately led to the Civil War and the formal end to slavery. It required three Constitutional Amendments (the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments) to officially mark the end of slavery, craft a new definition of citizenship and equal protections under the law, and the right to vote regardless of race, color, or previous condition of servitude (the voting franchise wasn’t guaranteed for nearly 100 years).

Even though the South would go on to lose more than 6 million African Americans during the Great Migration of 1910 to 1970, and the simultaneous rapid westward expansion and formation of new states, the region’s political representation in the House of Representatives never fell below 27 percent of the current chamber size of 435 representatives.

The South’s distinct and ugly history during the period of Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights era (and perhaps beyond) can be summarized by a struggle for the heart and soul of the region (often overtly violent, but also backed by a multiplicity of forms of de jure segregation) and its position on of equal rights and representation of African Americans and other oppressed populations.

The portrait of today’s South eloquently described by MDC’s Senior Fellow, Ferrel Guillory, as a place that “has a contradictory economy, polarized politics, an anxious populace, a divided head, and a conflicted heart” is precisely why the upcoming 2020 Census, and the resulting apportionment,  are an important benchmark for the region’s future. With substantial population growth since 1970 (accounting for 49 percent of the country’s population growth), the states of Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, Texas, and Virginia have accounted for the net increase of 26 House seats since the 1913 reapportionment. Alternatively, the states of Tennessee, Louisiana, Alabama, Arkansas, West Virginia, Mississippi, and Kentucky accounted for a loss of 21 seats during the same period (South Carolina held constant at seven seats).

Projecting the impact of Congressional Apportionment on the South

Election Data Services, a political consulting firm, recently completed analysis of the specific states that are likely to be gain or lose seats through apportionment following the 2020 Census. Based upon their latest analysis, the South and West are estimated to add a net of four congressional seats, while the Midwest and Northeast are projected to lose a net of four and three seats, respectively. As shown on the map below, the core states of the Rust Belt (including the states of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, and Michigan) are all currently expected to lose at least one seat. Meanwhile, the Southern states of Florida (+2), North Carolina (+1), and Texas (+2-3) are all expected to gain seats..While unforeseen circumstances (legal challenges, natural disasters, and unreliable or suppressed counts) may still affect the outcome of the final Census count, and the state-by-state tallying of congressional seats following the 2020 Census, one reality seams all but certain – the South is going add seats to its congressional delegation. The big open question is what affect our polarized politics, and conflicted heads and hearts, will have on how the maps for new congressional districts are drawn.

With no shortage of challenging issues to tackle on the horizon, recent evidence suggests that the principals and practices (let alone the art and science) of crafting new congressional maps will either work to strengthen or harm the region’s ability to embody a place where all people can belong, thrive and contribute. In our next post, we’ll examine the process and history of drawing congressional maps and how these they can be used as a tool to better represent the diversity and character of the modern South.