Counting prisoners at home would not share problems seen in Overseas Americans test enumeration

by Peter Wagner, September 13, 2004

A Government Accounting Office report [PDF] released on September 14 concluded that it would not be feasible for the Census Bureau to count overseas Americans in the 2010 Census. The report is based on a review of the Census Bureau’s recently concluded test enumeration of Americans in Kuwait, Mexico and France. The issue is relevant as an example of how other special populations are counted in the U.S. Census. While U.S. government employees overseas have typically been counted, other groups of Americans have generally — but not always — been excluded.

When the test enumeration began in February, I wrote a column comparing the merits and history of counting overseas Americans with the issue of changing how prisoners are counted. I noted that the Census Bureau’s rules seemed to track the number of people abroad. When war meant large numbers of Americans in other countries, there was an increased relevancy in counting them. When the numbers declined, so did the relevancy of the count. I argued that the rapid increase in the size of the incarcerated population creates an urgency to reexamine how the Census Bureau’s residency rules count prisoners.

The GAO report focused on another issue previewed in the February column: Overseas Americans are hard to locate. Americans overseas are not required to register their locations with the State Department or local governments, so there is no master list of overseas Americans to send forms to.

In the stateside Census, participation in the Census is mandatory and the Census Bureau starts with a master address list of every dwelling in the country. The Bureau can readily determine the completeness of their count by visiting residences that do not return a form. The procedure in other countries would have to be different. The overseas test enumeration asked the question: Can the Census accurately count the American population in other countries solely on the basis of a public relations campaign that encourages voluntary participation? According to the GAO, the answer is no. The Census Bureau spent $7.8 million to plan and carry out the test. Despite creating a web-based Census form and printing 520,000 Census forms in two languages, they received only 5,390 responses.

From the GAO’s perspective, the test enumeration was “an extremely valuable exercise in that it showed how counting Americans aboard as an integral part of the decennial census would not be cost-effective.” (p. 14) The GAO complained that it was never clear what the overseas American count would be used for or exactly who it should include. Would it be used for congressional apportionment, for redistricting or for general policy analysis? Each of these questions could affect the methodology and cost. While not supportive of including overseas Americans in the 2010 Census, the report does suggest that if the data was intended for policy — and not apportionment — purposes, then there may be other suitable means to gather this data separate from the decennial U.S. Census.

Prisoners are quite different. The feasibility issues that frustrated the test enumeration of overseas Americans would not affect changing how prisoners are counted for one simple reason: Prisoners are already counted. I propose to change only where they are counted. In fact, prisoners are easier to count than the average American. Most prisons already supply data to the U.S. Census from administrative records, although in some prisons, Census forms are handed out individually. reported one outcome:

At 4:30 pm on April 3, 2000, officials of California’s Folsom State Prison handed out 4,000 Census 2000 questionnaires to prisoners. Three hours later, 3,300 — 82 percent — of the census forms had been completed and returned. Not bad compared to a response rate of only 67 percent from California’s non-inmate population.

Unlike Americans voluntarily living overseas — some of whom have no intention of ever returning — prisoners did not choose to move to the prison town and develop no ties to it. As previous articles have demonstrated, the One Person One Vote rule in the U.S. Constitution requires that legislative districts be drawn to contain equal numbers of actual population. Crediting rural prison hosting areas with tens of thousands of urban minority residents runs afoul of that principle. Modern voting rights law requires a change in how the Census Bureau calculates the residence of incarcerated people.

Unlike the problems encountered in the overseas Americans test enumeration, prisoners will be easy to find and the data sought already exists in administrative records. Congress may or may not wish to have general information about where the overseas American population is, but modern voting rights law requires state legislatures to have accurate data on where the nation’s 2 million prisoners are from. The decennial Census is the best place to gather that information.

Credit: Thanks to Ben Dourte for bringing the GAO report to my attention.

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