Census 2010: Will Illinois lose a representative in Congress?

News-DemocratDecember 21, 2010 

Today, we are likely to learn that our nation grew, our state grew, but that we are losing a representative in Congress.

That's not because Illinois and the Midwest aren't growing. It's because we're not growing as fast as the rest of the country.

Today's political science lesson is courtesy of Belleville West High School teacher Brandon Hentze.

"The census is how we determine appropriation of seats in the House of Representatives," Hentze said. "It determines if the number of representatives in a state will increase or decrease. And, this time around in Illinois, we expect to lose a seat when the results of the census are revealed."

It's a familiar pattern.

Since 1930, Illinois has lost at least one U.S. representatives as a result of each Census tally except in 1970. The state has eight fewer representatives despite growing by about 4.8 million people during that time, and today the U.S. Census Bureau releases data expected to show Illinois' population is about 13 million yet has grown too slowly to avoid a ninth loss.

Times may have changed in innumerable ways since the U.S. Constitution was written in 1787, but the Founding Fathers' reason for creating the census hasn't. The census determines how the House's 435 seats are distributed among the 50 states.

If the estimated U.S. population of 308 million is borne out by the census count released today, that will work out to about 708,000 people represented by each congressman -- about 60,000 more than in 2000. At the time of the first Census in 1790, each congressman represented about 34,000 people.

Hentze said an upcoming population change could be in the House.

"One of the biggest changes we could see in the census in the not-too-distant future is the number of members of Congress," Hentze said. "It's been a long time since the number of representatives has changed, and there are a lot more people in this country than there were back then."

The last time the number of U.S. representatives was changed was 1913, when the House expanded from 394 members to its current tally of 435. That number varied in 1959 when Alaska and Hawaii were admitted to the union, but in 1963 it went back to 435.

When the first batch of data collected in the 2010 census is released today, we will learn the nation's population, the states' populations and how many seats each state will have in the U.S. House. Then by April 1 the Census Bureau will release population counts for smaller areas so the process of redrawing the congressional districts can begin.

However the information revealed by the census is used for many things other than redrawing legislative districts. It helps divvy up about $400 billion in tax dollars, provides data for planning everything from roads to zoning to schools and gives economic developers new tools.

"We're going to find out a lot about the people of our city," O'Fallon Mayor Gary Graham said. "And that helps us not only plan for our future, but to plan how we market ourselves to people."

Graham said he expects the census to show than about 44 percent of O'Fallon residents have a college degree and about 96 percent have a high school diploma, facts that make the city's work force look attractive to employers eyeing the city.

Census date about people's commute to work should show about 4,000 of the O'Fallon's white collar workers travel daily to St. Louis. He hopes to lure employers looking for those types of workers to his city.

Graham said he thinks the Census will also show O'Fallon now has more than 30,000 people. A special count a few years ago showed 26,000 residents.

"It's going to show that we have a lot of young people, proving that we have the sort of things to offer, like our park system, that make young families want to live here," Graham said.

While congressional redistricting determines the shape of the federal government, it's state lawmakers who get to mold that shape, said Dave Robertson, a University of Missouri political science professor.

And who is in control of the House, the Senate and the White House has nothing to do with congressional district mapping. It's who sits in the state legislatures and the governor's offices that matters.

"If the same party has control in both houses of state government and the governor's mansion -- like the Democrats in Illinois -- it makes it easy," Robertson said. "While the goal is to make the population of the districts as close to equal as possible, the party in control can usually find a way to put a couple of representatives from the other party up against each other or to make incumbents from the other party a little more vulnerable come election time."

Robertson said it's more complicated to divide districts in places where the state government is divided. But he said it's become a 220-year-old tradition for the parties to work together to benefit incumbents.

"If all things are equal, then the parties work together to make sure that the incumbents with seniority are best protected when it comes to redistricting," Robertson said.

While technology, travel and communication have changed during the past 223 years, Hentze said the founding fathers would still recognize the census process.

"Besides the use of computers and telephones, the census hasn't changed very much," Hentze said. "One of the biggest changes to the census happened with the 14th Amendment."

Adopted in 1868, the 14th Amendment to the Constitution eliminated the Three-Fifths Compromise, giving former slaves full citizenship and counting them as a whole person instead of 60 percent of a person.

In the first census in 1790, only six questions were asked: Who is the head of your household? How many people live in your house? How many free white males that are 16 years of age or older live in your house? How many free white males under 16 years of age live in your house? What are the sexes and what are the races of the other people living in your household?

By 1810, Congress decided it needed more information. Since then, questions about agriculture, business, construction, housing, local governments and transportation have been added.

The 2010 census marked a return to the past: 10 questions for everyone, and no long form mailed to a sampling of U.S. residents. The sample data on housing, economics, household relationships, work and many other measures is now collected by the Census Bureau on an ongoing basis.

Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at swuerz@bnd.com or 239-2626.

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