December 8, 2003
COUNT ON IT
Non-citizens — even illegal aliens — are included in the Census. Think this affects the political system?
JOHN J. MILLER
Nobody in the House of Representatives has more constituents than Denny Rehberg. With some 900,000 people in his district — which encompasses the whole state of Montana — his population base is almost 50 percent larger than that of the typical House member. To complicate matters further, only Don Young of Alaska represents a larger geographical area. “It’s a real balancing act,” says Rehberg, a Republican. “I find that there’re three sides to every two-sided issue.”
It would be a lot easier representing all of these citizens if congressmen actually represented citizens. But they don’t, or at least not exclusively. Under the current rules of apportionment, the 435 House seats are divvied up on the basis of the total number of people living in each state — not just citizens, but also non-citizens and even illegal aliens. It’s hard to believe: People whose very presence in the United States is against the law are granted formal representation in Washington.
This is the root cause of Rehberg’s predicament. Montana doesn’t have a second congressional seat because so many illegal aliens live in places like California, which receives three extra representatives for the 2 million illegal aliens who call it home. And Montana isn’t the only loser in the zero-sum game of congressional apportionment. Indiana, Michigan, and Mississippi are also shy a seat in the House because of illegal aliens residing elsewhere, according to a new report by the Center for Immigration Studies.Most Americans don’t realize that their democracy redistributes political power based on the settlement patterns of illegal aliens and other non-citizens. But these changes are significant enough to shuffle around a bunch of seats in the House of Representatives and perhaps even alter the outcome of a presidential election. If the next race for the White House is as close as the last one, it’s possible that the federal government’s practice of treating illegal aliens the same as citizens for purposes of apportionment will wind up costing George W. Bush the presidency.
The 2000 Census counted 18.5 million non-citizens, including an estimated 7 million illegal aliens. If these people were evenly distributed around the country, they would have no impact on how House seats are assigned. But immigrants tend to cluster in ethnic communities. Nearly 30 percent of America’s non-citizens live in California, for example, compared with 12 percent of the total U.S. population. These non-citizens — most of them legal immigrants — are enough to boost the Golden State’s congressional delegation by six whole members. Florida, New York, and Texas also gain one extra seat apiece because of their large non-citizen populations. Nine states lose out: Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Utah, and Wisconsin.
Aside from the compelling matter of principle involved, these apportionment schemes distort our politics in other ways: Democrats benefit. That’s because non-citizen apportionment allows the creation of congressional districts full of people who don’t have the right to vote — and Democrats almost always win in these places. Consider California’s 31st congressional district, where 41 percent of the inhabitants are non-citizens. Last year, Xavier Becerra — one of the most left-wing members of Congress — carried it by attracting fewer than 55,000 votes, despite its population of 639,000. In many congressional districts, the winner needs two times this level of support. Steve Sailer of UPI crunched the numbers for California’s whole delegation: In the eight districts won by Hispanics (all Democrats), an average of 80,000 voters went to the polls. In the other 45 districts, an average of 143,000 turned out — that’s 79 percent more.
Racial gerrymandering compounds the problem. About 40 percent of the country’s Hispanics are not citizens; packing as many of them as possible into single districts creates conglomerations of people who can’t pick their representatives. In 18th-century England, parliamentary constituencies that had dwindled to just a handful of voters were labeled “rotten boroughs.” Non-citizen apportionment has delivered something very much like this to our own shores, though we might call them “rotten barrios.”
Their corrupting influence may one day reach to the presidential level. Here’s an illustration of what may be at stake, based on the fact that a state’s electoral votes are the sum of its two senators and the number of its House members. In the 2000 election, Bush earned 271 electoral votes to Al Gore’s 267. If any of the states in Bush’s column had gone the other way — including New Hampshire (4 electoral votes) or traditionally Democratic West Virginia (5) — we’d now be in the third year of the Gore administration.
Looking ahead, let’s assume that Bush carries the same 30 states in 2004 as he did in 2000. Because this will be the first election following the 2000 Census reapportionment, Bush would collect 278 electoral votes from this same set of states. If both New Hampshire and West Virginia were to defect, Bush would most likely retire to his ranch in Crawford. But let’s assume further that illegal aliens weren’t counted in apportionment. In this scenario, Democrat-friendly California surrenders a bit of its political clout to Bush-country states like Indiana and Mississippi. The president’s 30-state victory would earn him 280 electoral votes. Suddenly he could afford to lose both New Hampshire and West Virginia and still secure a second term. Because of illegal-alien apportionment, however, Bush now must prevail in at least one of these states (or replace their electoral votes with fresh wins elsewhere).
On the surface, this doesn’t look like a tough problem to solve. Why not just quit counting illegal aliens for apportionment? In 1989, the Senate actually passed a bill that would have excluded illegal aliens from apportionment calculations. In the House, Tom Ridge — then a Republican congressman from Pennsylvania, now secretary of homeland security — offered a similar measure. Democrats defeated it. If Ridge had been successful, however, it might not have mattered: The (first) Bush administration was threatening a veto because of the huge bureaucratic headache the law would have created just months before the decennial Census was scheduled to occur.
What’s more, the states with large non-citizen populations want these non-voters to count toward apportionment, since it increases their political power. And when a state the size of California squares off against the likes of Montana in a clash of political interests, might usually equals right. “The result is a system in which states have a perverse incentive to attract immigrants, including illegal ones,” says Noah Pickus of North Carolina’s Institute for Emerging Issues.
Even if the political difficulties were surmounted and Congress altered apportionment calculations, however, legal hurdles would remain. The Fourteenth Amendment calls for apportioning representatives based on “the whole number of persons” in each state. Defenders of the status quo insist that this means everybody must count, regardless of his citizenship. They also like to point out that the Constitution previously has recognized the representation of the disenfranchised: Before the Civil War, each slave counted as three-fifths of a person. Yet this is a spurious claim. While it’s true that being counted as fractional persons was an indignity to blacks, they would have been better off not being counted at all: It was the southern states, not the northern ones, that wanted their non-voting human property to count in apportionment schemes, as it boosted their political power.
Today, apportionment doesn’t really include everybody. Foreign tourists, business travelers, and diplomats don’t count, even if they’re in the United States on the day the Census is taken. Yet counting illegal aliens has become the standard operating procedure, and so anything that upsets it would produce a flock of messy lawsuits.
It’s not realistic to hope that any of this can be corrected before next year — though making a change in time for the 2010 Census is probably achievable. Between now and then, the case for reform will only grow more convincing, as the non-citizen population continues to grow in the absence of major immigration reforms. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see the next Census capture 2 million foreign students,” says Steven Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies. “A whole congressional district could move from one state to another simply because of foreigners pursuing degrees at American universities.”
Of course, nothing will stop this unless a political leader decides to make a stand against non-citizen or illegal-alien apportionment. It won’t be Congressman Rehberg. “I’m focused on a lot of other issues right now,” he says. “Besides, they can’t take away any more of Montana’s seats.”