19 April 2010

Let's Ditch the Census, Already (and Reform the House of Representatives While We're At It)

This isn't a modest, or immodest proposal, it's more a suggestion on how we can save the time, expense, and waste involved with the decennial census as required in the United States Constitution.

It's time to amend that provision away. The 2010 Census' pricetag is $14,000,000,000 and counting. I personally find the ad campaigns to push compliance with the count irksome. The 'get counted so you can get on the government assistance gravy train' angle they have been pushing is especially grotesque. It's ridiculous to suggest that communities won't know how to allocate services and budgets until they get the numbers back from the federal government every ten years. Well run towns find ways to keep track of usage patterns without house to house written surveys, and poorly run towns aren't going to be helped by knowing that their population has increased or decreased by a certain head count. Private enterprises manage to anticipate the needs of shifting, growing, and shrinking communities, and there are dozens of ways they can explore demographic patterns on a moment by moment basis.

There's no compelling reason for the federal government (beyond apportionment) to have an exact head count of how many people live in the country. Local governments need this data, but let them pay for their own data collection, and leave it up to each locale how detailed they want their data to be. I bet the current $14B+ budget wasted on creating this massive federal bureaucracy to do the current head count could have been produced at a fraction of the cost (less than $1B) with existing private surveys used by marketers, businesses, and the like. People opt in to allowing a whole cloud of data to follow them around everywhere they go, there's no reason in this day and age to duplicate a fraction of this data at a large multiple of the cost.

That covers why we should ditch the Census, but there is one function that the Census provides that can't be replaced on an ad hoc basis from community to community. While devising an amendment to ditch the Census, we also must include a provision for reforming how the House of Representatives is apportioned.

My proposal for apportionment is to count votes, not population, and to leave it up to each state to figure out some of the specific details. The details that would be the same from state to state would be as follows:

I'd end 'winner take all', instead each candidate who receives in excess of 5,000 votes would get at least one vote share. Vote shares would be allocated for each multiple of 5,000 votes a candidate receives, so if a district had 4 serious candidates, and their totals were 37,000 for A, 19,500 for B, 5,200 for C, and 3,700 for D the votes that those candidates would take to Congress with them would be A gets 7 votes, B gets 3 votes, C gets 1 vote, and D (along with any other folks who receive votes) just misses becoming a Representative.

This does a couple of worthwhile things, in my opinion. First, it makes the Census unecessary, as votes are all that counts, not population. Second, it gives political constituencies beyond just DEM and GOP a valid shot at sending folks to Congress. Third, it discourages gerrymandering as it's in each state's interest to maximize the overall vote total, otherwise their representatives will have fewer votes to take with them to Congress when they get elected. This would encourage both major parties to actively campaign in every district, and it would give minor and local interest parties a path towards representation in DC.

To prevent less honest states from turning out the dead to increase their vote total (I'm staring at you, Illinois), every state would be entitled to verify the vote total of any other state. Either, most the states will collude to inflate their totals, or the threat of litigation will prevent states from doing anything too nefarious with the way they come up with their totals.

The number of Representatives would vary from Congress to Congress, as would the total number of votes each Representative would wield. Some states might send dozens, or hundreds of reps, each with only a few votes each, as a way to give as many citizens a direct voice in the federal government. Other states might feel better served by having fewer representatives, each endowed with impressive vote totals, by having few or no districts.

Last election, far too many of the seats in the House were occupied by incumbents who went virtually unchallenged. Under the new rules, if a party with a big demographic advantage in a district ran an uninspiring incumbent, they might easily dominate the election, but they'd also be suppressing turnout, and they'd cost that rep influence when they return to DC.

Some years there might be more than 5,000 reps, others there might be fewer than 1,000 reps, depending how each state sets up their rules and the whims of the electorate. With so many folks potentially being in the House, you'd need to trim way back on all the perks and privileges that have accrued to representatives (a situation most voters would welcome, I suspect). I see a 5,000+ person House of Representatives as a feature, not a flaw, as that would greatly increase the cost and complexity of lobbying. Rather than staying permanently in DC, and only occasionally visiting their home states when they need to grub for votes, under this system, the entire House would meet only a few times a year, for only a short time, and spend the rest of their time back home amongst the folks that sent them to DC.

The current system doesn't lead to an excess of democracy, instead it concentrates power to too few who hold onto it, for too long. I think this reform would break that cycle, and go a long way towards returning a notion of service to the House, rather than privilege.


Anonymous said...

How about we allot representation based on tax returns? Anyone who actually pays more tax than he receives in tax credits--EIC, all that crap--gets counted along with his family. Those who pay nothing aren't counted. And we don't have to take a census, since the IRS already has all that handy information.

XWL said...

No Representation Without TAXATION!

Might work as a slogan, but I don't think it would appeal to enough folks to get an amendment passed.

(not that my idea would gin up votes, either)