WSJ Looks Past the Census Noise

The Wall Street Journal finds an interesting angle on the census, looking beyond the rhetoric of conservative activists who’ve been campaigning against the count to the political implications of their stance.

Some Republicans are worried that an anti-government surge among conservatives will lead to lower participation in the U.S. census, which they fear could reduce the number of Republican seats in Congress and state legislatures.

Grumbling about the census isn’t new. As the Journal points out, the last time around, it was mostly Democrats who did the complaining, worried that minorities and the poor might be undercounted. And they had reason to worry. As the story explains, the census “dictates the distribution of federal funding, how many House members each state gets and how congressional and legislative districts are drawn within states.”

But this year, most of the noise has come from small-government conservatives like Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who argue “it is unconstitutional for the census to ask anything beyond the number of people in a household.” Hmm. I’m having trouble finding that passage in my copy.

Despite the fuzzy logic, their campaign appears to be having some effect. As my former colleague Dave Weigel noted last week, the response rate in Texas is trailing the national average by a significant margin, and numbers in conservative strongholds in the state are especially low. (For a nice time-waster, click here to play with the Census Bureau’s participation rate toy.)

To make its case, the Journal relies on this nice bit of reporting and analysis:

In a counter move, Rep. Patrick McHenry (R., N.C.), the top Republican on the House subcommittee that oversees the census, posted a message last week on, a popular conservative Web site, pleading with conservatives to fill out their forms.

The unstated concern: An under-representation of conservatives could mean fewer Republicans in Congress and state legislatures for the next 10 years.

“It’s your constitutional duty to respond to this,” Mr. McHenry said in an interview. “It’s often difficult for conservatives to separate overall government intervention from a question as simple as the census.”

He’s trying. But the anti-census rage shows no sign of abating.

CNN’s new need-some-ratings hire, the incendiary blogger Erick Erickson, made that clear on his radio show last week. As Politico reported, Erickson said “that if a census worker carrying a longer American Community Survey form came by his house, he would ‘pull out my wife’s shotgun and see how that little ACS twerp likes being scared at the door.’” (Predictably, Erickson later said he was “misconstrued.”)

The census story won’t be done ‘til long after the final tally is made. Hopefully, we’ll see more serious coverage of why it all matters.

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Holly Yeager is CJR's Peterson Fellow, covering fiscal and economic policy. She is based in Washington and reachable at