Liberally Speaking (3/25/10)

More than just a head count

March 25, 2010

By Steve Mount

It’s been a busy few weeks at my Web site, I was expecting it to be busy, but I expected the questions to be all about the health care bill and congressional rules and procedures. The bulk of the e-mail I’ve gotten though, was about something completely different.

The subject of interest is perhaps best illustrated by this question: “Is there a place in the Constitution that says that I don’t have to answer all the questions asked by the census?”

The question seems to come from a place of paranoia that I just cannot quite get my head around. Before I address that, though, a little history about the census itself might be interesting.

When the framers of the Constitution came to their great compromise between the small and large states, they created a bicameral Congress: One house with equal representation, the Senate; and one with proportional representation, the House of Representatives. This was a great departure from the Congress created by the Articles of Confederation, where each state had an equal voice.

To ensure that the proportional representation, or apportionment, in the House was fair, the Constitution requires the Congress to conduct a census every 10 years. Until that first census, the Constitution guessed at proportions, with small Delaware and Rhode Island garnering one representative each and the largest state, Virginia, getting 10.

The very first census was held in 1790. The Constitution allows the Congress to conduct the census in “such manner as they shall by law direct.” From the very beginning, the law directed that the census be more than a simple head count.

In that first census, which was conducted by census marshals and deputies who visited each home, the questions asked included the name of the head of household and the gender, race, slave status and age of each person. The slave status was necessary because slaves were counted as three-fifths of a whole person, a slight remedied by the 14th Amendment.

Fast-forward to 2010, and the release of the 2010 census form. The questions on the form are not so different today as they were back in 1790. It asks for the name, gender, birth date, age, race, ethnicity and relationship to the head of household of each individual. For the entire household, there are questions about whether the dwelling is rented or owned and for the household phone number.

These questions are not overly intrusive. The courts have said as much — the Supreme Court blessed non-headcount questions in 1870, and lower courts affirmed them as late as 2000. The questions form the basis for a relatively comprehensive look at the American population, and because similar questions have been asked since 1790, we have a wealth of information about our changing demographics over time.

Yet there are still those who question the questions, and feel certain that the Constitution must allow people to refuse to answer them.

The Constitution, of course, does not have a provision to allow you to refuse to answer. In fact, the Constitution explicitly gives the Congress the power to ask them — the census is to be conducted in such manner as the Congress requires by law. This statement seems pretty straightforward.

If nothing else, the census has become less intrusive in recent years. The form in 2010 has about 10 questions; the 2000 census form was basically the same. In 1990, however, the 200th anniversary of the census, the census had 33 numbered questions for individuals and 26 for the dwelling. Filling out the form could take hours.

Some 3 million households, of an estimated 118 million, will get a longer form this year — a copy of the American Community Survey. This survey goes into the sort of detail the 1990 survey asked of all households. The information is required by law, so if you get one, you should take the time to fill it out. The questions asked can seem intrusive — what sort of fuel do you use for cooking, for example — but the answers can help the Congress, and even our own state Legislature, make critical policy choices.

The answer to the question posed to me is no, there is no provision in the Constitution giving you the right to refuse to answer census questions. The head count is crucial to proper apportionment of the House, but beyond that, accurate answers can help shape policy for years to come.


Steve Mount has been a Williston resident since 1996. He is a software engineer at GE Healthcare and is devoted to his family, his country and his Constitution. You can reach Steve at or read his blog at