Experts: Census questions fall within scope of U.S. Constitution

It doesn’t matter to Dave Brady that this year’s census, at 10 questions, is the shortest in its history.

He believes all but the first question, which asks how many people reside in his home, are beyond the survey’s constitutional scope.

“The Constitution only requires that the government take a head count,” said Brady of Wonder Lake. “All those [other] questions are simply none of the government’s business.”

Brady, former chairman of the county and state Libertarian Party, is part of a vocal demographic who liken the decennial count to Big Brother knocking on their doors. While this group cites the Constitution as the premise for its angst, others challenge that the constitutional thing to do is to fill out the form and mail it in.

“It’s tough to suggest that it’s unconstitutional, given the fact that the census is written directly into the Constitution,” said Ed Yohnka, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.

The Constitution actually states, in Article I, Section II, that a census may be taken every 10 years “in such a manner as [Congress] shall by law direct.”

Legal experts said that was the clause that permitted the census to ask more than just how many people live in a household.

“If Congress has the authority to do it, it becomes supreme law of the land,” said John Oldham McGinnis, a Northwestern University law professor. “We just have to follow it.”

Even The Heritage Foundation, the nation’s leading conservative think tank, has policy buffs advising that the constitutional thing to do is to fill out the form.

“Everyone should realize that if you don’t complete a census form, you are violating federal law,” blogger Hans Von Spakovsky wrote last week on the The Foundry blog.

The U.S. Census Bureau has warned that anyone who fails to complete a census form or provides false information can be fined up to $5,000.

However, few have paid the penalty.

Jim Accurso, a media specialist with the Chicago Regional Census Center, said that despite the possibility of fines, only 72 percent of Americans participated in the 2000 census.

Not a single American was fined for nonparticipation, he said.

“We’re not about fining. We’re about getting as complete information as possible,” Accurso said.

The bureau tries to retrieve information from nonrespondents by visiting their homes up to six times. However, these personal visits can get costly.

The bureau spends $57 on each visit to a nonrespondent’s home, compared with the average $1 per respondent that is spent on the mailing.

Additionally, not completing the form might result in less money being allocated to towns.

“If folks don’t fill out the form, they’re not only going to shortchange themselves, they’re going to shortchange their community, their neighbors,” Accurso said.

Threats of fines and less tax money being allocated to local government entities are the least of Brady’s worries, though.

“Think back in Nazi Germany and Communist Russia,” Brady said. “They also did that stuff to help each other, and we see how that turned out.”

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