Census participation: An obligation of democracy


It is a sign of our times that Americans usually emphasize our rights over our responsibilities. We like to assert what we believe is our due. Being reminded of our duty is something we could do without. And yet, living in a country as free and prosperous as America comes with obligations for everyone contained on its soil, even those living here illegally. Participating in the census is such an obligation for everyone who lives here. 

Census counts go back not just centuries but millenniums. Mary and Joseph were apparently on their way home to be counted for a census when Jesus was born. Before the founding of America, census counts were historically used mainly for taxation purposes.

In writing the Constitution of the United States, our founders had a different vision. Rather than being used for taxation purposes alone, the census would be used to determine representation in Congress.  Thus, Jefferson, Madison and company turned what had been primarily an instrument of governmental control into a means of political empowerment for the governed.   

The mandate for a census is contained in Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution, which directed a census to be conducted “within three years after the first meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent term of 10 years, in such manner as they shall by law direct.” Congress first met in 1789 and the first national census was held in 1790, during George Washington’s first term as president. It has been conducted every 10 years since then.

Today, the significance of an accurate census count is not just votes and representation, but also money. Federal dollars are allocated to states and state dollars to localities based primarily on the number of residents. Everyone living in Alexandria, whether they have legal status or not, benefits from the services our city provides, whether it’s in the realm of water, sewer, police, fire, health or education. All of us have a responsibility to fill out the form and be counted.

In our eagerness to count everyone, however, we also have an obligation to ensure that fraud does not occur. Just as it’s important to actually count everyone, it’s equally important to be sure that those we’re counting actually live here most of the time.

The 2010 census is very short, containing questions on name, gender, race, ethnicity, whether a person sometimes lives somewhere else, how many people reside in the residence and whether the primary residence is a house, apartment or mobile home. In size and scope it is very similar to that original 1790 census.

Like voting, participating in the decennial census is our civic duty. For along with the benefits of living in a country as free as America and a city as fine as Alexandria comes obligation.