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Conservatives target census -- and hurt their own cause?

March 31, 2010 | 10:15 am

Official U.S. Census 2010 form, by Getty
 
Every year since 1790, the U.S. government has counted its people. In recent years, the census has sparked charges, especially among Latinos, that their communities were under-counted because of language difficulties and fear that census takers were interested in rooting out illegal immigrants.

But this year, fear about the government's intentions is coming not only from liberals concerned about minority under-counting and a form that does not consider Hispanics a racial category, but from conservatives worried about invasion of privacy.

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) stoked the controversy last year when she warned Americans not to fill out any information on the 2010 census except for the question that asks how many people reside in each household. Her concern: The U.S. government could start rounding up citizens, as it did  Japanese Americans during World War II, and put them in internment camps.

The call has been taken up by other conservatives, like Fox News' Glenn Beck.

“The census has become a lightning rod, and it’s drawing people’s attention to the danger of....

...federal surveillance,” said James Bovard, a Libertarian author who also advocates disclosing only only the number of people in a household. As Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) put it:

"The invasive nature of  the current census raises questions about how and why government will use the collected information. It also demonstrates how the federal bureaucracy consistently encourages citizens to think of themselves in terms of groups rather than as individual Americans.”

Actually, the critics have a point -- the Constitution only requires the government to count the population every 10 years, not to ask a lot of questions about race, ethnic identity and gather up phone numbers.

But now some on the right are raising concerns that the partial boycott could hurt their own cause. Since governments at all levels base their funding decisions and political redistricting on population, fueling the fire against the census could rob heavily conservative districts and suburbs of needed funds and services.

Three Republican congressmen on the census committee -- North Carolina's Patrick McHenry, Georgia's Lynn Westmoreland and Florida's John Mica -- approached Bachmann privately and asked her to stop the boycott. Roll Call reports that they went public with their concerns because Bachmann "appeared unfazed by their request."

This week, which marks the end of the voluntary, return-your-own-form phase of the process, the Census Bureau warned that participation rates are running behind the rest of the nation in large states like Ohio, New Jersey and Connecticut, as well as in cities like Chicago and Detroit. Who knows, maybe both sides are boycotting.

Anyway, the next step could get expensive. The government sends a census taker to every household that does not respond by mail. No telling how many slammed doors they'll see before this is all over.

-- Johanna Neuman

Photo: Getty Images

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