Why is the Census Important?

There are countless applications of Census data in both academic and commerical research, but there are four key functions of the Census that affect public policy and voting in the United States:

  1. Reapportionment
  2. Redistricting
  3. Demographic Data
  4. Government Resource Allocation

Reapportionment

The number of congressional districts in a state may shift based on increases or decreases in population over the previous decade, which affects congressional representation and state electoral votes. This reapportionment of seats in the House of Representatives and resulting change in electoral votes helps dicate the geographic shift in political power within the United States.

Over the past decades, congressional seats have primarily been lost in the Northeast and Midwest and reapportioned to the South and West of the country. This trend is expected to continue as the population is projected to steadily increase in the South and West parts of the United States.

See the next page for more information on reapportionment after the 2010 election and projected shifts for 2020.

Redistricting

Within states, the congressional and state legislature districts are redrawn based on Census data. Based on population distribution changes within states, the boundaries must shift every ten years in order to ensure each district has roughly the same population.

In most states, including Minnesota, the state legislature draws the district lines. This can present issues with partisan influence, leading to unfair districts through gerrymandering Manipulation of the boundaries of an electoral district so as to favor or harm one party or class. Some states have moved toward advisory or independent committees in order to reduce partisan motivation in the redistricting process.

Try out the redistricting process for yourself with this free online game. Choose a party and draw the lines to keep population roughly the same between districts. You can also see how gerrymandering can happen in subtle and overt ways. Levels get increasingly more difficult as more criteria is added to your task as the chief of redistricting.

Demographic Data

The Census provides a snapshot of country, state, local areas, and on a broad level defines who we are as a nation. Demographic data helps groups from all parts of society use census information to decide where to direct their attention and resources. The census helps these groups identify areas in need of certain services, businesses, civil rights outreach, community engagement, etc.

For instance, a group advocating for ballots and voter information to be printed in languages other than English may use census data to locate populations likely to primarily speak a non-English language. Given the racial disparity in the history of voting rights, the demographic data provided by the Census is extremely important in protecting these rights.

Visit these interactive maps to see census data displayed across the United States. Map 1. Map 2.

Government Resource Allocation

Over $400 billion per year is allocated throughout the nation with help from census data, including programs such as public health, education and infrastructure. State and local funds are often distributed based on population, meaning that every person is important when advocating for funding. The strength of census statistics and data also helps inform many public policy proposals at all levels of government.