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Census numbers have a vital purpose

Posted Tuesday, January 11, 2011, at 1:24 PM

Recently, we ran a story about some of the new census numbers, and one of our readers questioned their accuracy.

To a certain extent, he was correct.

As we pointed out in the story, the "hard" numbers for the 2010 diannual census released by the Census Bureau ten days ago applied only to general state populations. Details at the state and county level were based on a survey done in July of last year and were estimates. Those estimates had a small, but significant, margin of error. For Elmore County and Mountain Home, the survey's margin of error could be off by as much as 250 people, either plus or minus. Which is why some of the numbers we selected in our story didn't match some of the numbers our reader found.

One good example was the number of people living in households in Mountain Home, which didn't match the population number for Mountain Home, although both were within each other's margin of error. How anybody could live in Mountain Home, which has virtually zero homeless, and not live in a household is beyond me. It was that type of "error" our reader pointed out, however, and is a perfect example of why I've always been a little cautious with survey results. The margin of error always has to be taken into account, even if our story didn't fully explain that.

Based on that survey, our population is down slightly, which doesn't surprise me considering the drawdowns at the airbase over the last two years.

But the "hard" numbers, generated by last spring's census, won't be out until at least February for counties and cities in each state. In fact, they'll be slowly released over the next few months as the Census Bureau refines its data. And when those "hard" numbers are available, we'll report on them as well. It will be interesting to see how they differ from the survey numbers, although historically the surveys are pretty close.

The census is important for a lot of reasons -- they help determine grant and other funding eligibility, for example -- but the main reason it is conducted every ten years is a constitutional requirement to do so. The Constitution requires the census in order to determine the number of representatives in Congress, and that's why the "hard" state numbers were released first. Currently, federal law limits the total number of representatives to 435, a number that is pretty much going to be locked in stone for a while unless the U.S. Capitol is expanded to physically allow more seats in the House of Representatives.

Determining how those 435 seats are apportioned to each state (which is guaranteed at least one, even if, like Wyoming, total population is much lower than that of most most congressional districts), is not as simple a process as you might think. There have been various methods over the years to split up the total national population into the necessary number of House seats, while keeping the total number of citizens in each congressional district as close to the same as possible.

Since 1941, federal law uses what is known as the Huntington-Hill Method, also known as the Method of Equal Proportions. The full description of how to do this takes up about 19 pages of explanation and a lot of math, but the short course, as explained by the Census Bureau, is:

1. Calculate the Standard Divisor (SD).

SD= Total population divided by number of seats (435).

2. Calculate each state's Standard Quota (SQ).

SQ= State population divided by the SD.

The Lower Quota is the SQ rounded down.

The Upper Quota is the SQ rounded up.

3. Initially assign a state its Lower Quota if the fractional part of its Standard Quota is less than the Geometric Mean of the two whole numbers that the Standard Quota is immediately between (for example, 16.47 is immediately between 16 and 17).

Initially assign a state its Upper Quota if the fractional part of its Standard Quota is greater than or equal to the Geometric Mean of the two whole numbers that the Standard Quota is immediately between (for example, 16.47 is immediately between 16 and 17).

(In other words, round down or up based on the geometric mean.)

4. Check to see if the sum of the Quotas (Lower and/or Upper from Step 3) is equal to the correct number of seats to be apportioned.

If the sum of the Quotas (Lower and/or Upper from Step 3) is equal to the correct number of seats to be apportioned, then apportion to each state the number of seats equal to its Quota (Lower or Upper from Step 3).

5. If the sum of the Quotas (Lower and/or Upper from Step 3) is NOT equal to the correct number of seats to be apportioned, then, by trial and error, find a number, MD, called the Modified Divisor, to use in place of the Standard Divisor so that when the Modified Quota, MQ, for each state (computed by dividing each State's Population by MD instead of SD) is rounded based on the geometric mean, the sum of all the rounded Modified Quotas is the exact number of seats to be apportioned. Apportion each state its Modified Rounded Quota.

I hope that was perfectly clear.

In addition to the federal apportionment of representatives, each state must use the census numbers to reapportion its own legislature, a process that typically is highly contentious as each party accuses the other of gerrymandering and usually winds up falling on some independent commission to settle things. But since that commission, and the rules it uses to create legislative districts, is created by the legislature, the massive Republican sweep of state legislatures this year will tend to favor district boundaries that benefit the GOP. It's just the way things are.

Prior to the last legislative reapportionment, our district included Elmore County and the eastern part of Owyhee County (essentially Bruneau and Grand View), which made a lot of sense. But ten years ago our district was rearranged to include Elmore and Boise counties instead, which made no sense. There was no "community of interest" (as required by the reapportionment law) between the two counties, and in fact, you couldn't drive (at least on a paved road and at no time during the winter) from one county to the other without driving through some other legislative district in Ada County.

A couple years ago, the legislature changed the reapportionment law to prevent that problem. Parts of a district in different counties have to be at least linked by a paved road.

So when the legislature begins reapportionment, you can pretty much write off Boise County being part of our legislative district next time around. Because of how the "hard" census numbers are likely to work out in determining the size of a legislative district, most observers believe that we'll be lumped in with Gooding County as one legislative district.

The numbers work out pretty well and there is clearly a "community of interest" between eastern Elmore County and Gooding County. It would be a good fit.

Of course, anything could happen, and in many ways it makes a lot of sense -- which is almost anathema to anything the legislature does -- but we'll put our money down that our next legislative district that represents us will include Gooding County.

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After reading the article, and the rather detailed explanation, it comes to mind how much that process would be altered if we didn't have parties, but did this as people representing our area. You can imagine the commentary...

We have this interests, and these people have similar interests, we should be grouped together. We don't share interests with the people over in ... and so the process would go.

Would things be more efficient and run smoother if we didn't have political parties in the process?

-- Posted by lakewriter on Mon, Jan 17, 2011, at 9:44 PM

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