Who Counts Overseas? Reapportionment & Interstate Conflict

States typically benefit from having as much representation in Congress as possible. Each state is guaranteed two Senators, but the number of representatives each state has in the U.S. House of Representatives is based on population size. Representatives are reapportioned to the states every ten years, following the release of population counts from the decennial census.

As the number of seats in the House of Representatives is fixed at 435, any change in the number of seats held by one state must occur in conjunction with an equal and opposite change in the number of seats held by the other states. Conflicts regularly arise around the apportionment of the 435 seats. Though these conflicts occur over a variety of topics, a recurrent issue is who is – and is not—included in the state’s apportionment population.

For most of the twentieth century, the decennial census did not count American citizens living abroad. With the scale of the Vietnam War and U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia, the 1970 Census was the first to include components of the U.S. overseas population in the apportionment population: U.S. military and federal civilian employees and their dependents living with them. These populations were not included in the 1980 apportionment population, but were again included in the apportionment count in 1990 and subsequent censuses.

The 1990 Census led to the shift of one House seat from Massachusetts to Washington State. This shift occurred only because the Census included military personnel stationed abroad. Massachusetts challenged this enumeration decision by suing the Secretary of Commerce, who oversees the United States Census Bureau (Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. Mosbacher, 1991). Massachusetts argued that the inclusion of military personnel abroad created an inequality in the enumeration of state populations. The Massachusetts Federal District Court agreed, but the Supreme Court reversed the decision on appeal (Franklin v. Massachusetts, 1992 ). The Supreme Court found that the enumeration of military personnel outside of the United States creates a more accurate and equal enumeration of the population of each state, under the assumption that military personnel temporarily stationed abroad keep ties with their home state upon their return.

2000: Utah and North Carolina

Federal employment and military deployment are not the only reasons why American citizens may be temporarily living abroad during the census enumeration. The Census Bureau does not count Americans working for private companies or attending school overseas, largely due to challenges in identifying and enumerating this population.

In the 2000 Census, North Carolina’s 18,360 military personnel and federal employees stationed overseas were counted in the state’s congressional apportionment population. The state of Utah also had a significant overseas population. Utah’s 3,545 overseas military and federal employees were counted in the Census, but the state’s 11,176 Mormon missionaries living abroad were not enumerated since they were not federal employees. As a result of the 2000 Census, North Carolina gained a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, increasing from 12 to 13 representatives. This seat would have gone to Utah had the Mormon missionaries been included in the 2000 Census enumeration.

Wanting to gain a fourth seat in the House of Representatives, Utah challenged the apportionment count on multiple grounds. First, the state argued that either the Mormon missionaries should have been counted in the Census or no American living abroad should have been counted (Utah v. Evans, 2001). Citing the Supreme Court’s decision in Franklin v. Massachusetts, a three judge panel of a district court found that the inclusion of federal employees—and only federal employees—in the apportionment population, “[Was] a rational exercise of the Secretary’s discretion, delegated to the Census Bureau, to conduct its obligation to enumerate the population for apportionment purposes.” The Supreme Court declined to hear this case on appeal, and provided a summary affirmation of the district court’s verdict.

Second, Utah challenged the Census Bureau’s use of count imputation, alleging that it violated prohibitions on the use of statistical sampling to determine the apportionment population (Utah v. Evans, 2002). The Census Bureau uses imputation for housing units where census forms were not returned or where the information provided is ambiguous, contradictory, or incomplete. Imputation assumes that these unknown properties have the same characteristics as their nearest geographical neighbor that was enumerated by a visit from a census representative. The net result of the use of imputation methods following the 2000 Census was an increase to the national population of about 0.4%. The net increase was unevenly distributed among states, however. North Carolina’s population increased by about 0.4% while Utah’s increased by about 0.2%, a difference large enough to merit the apportionment of a U.S. House seat to North Carolina rather than Utah.

The Supreme Court again rejected Utah’s claim on the grounds that imputation is an inherently different method of enumeration than demographic sampling, which uses a small portion of a population to infer information about the entire population. In contrast, the Bureau used imputation to fill in missing data as “part of an effort to count individuals one by one.” Thus, North Carolina was apportioned thirteen House seats, and Utah retained its three previous seats.

North Carolina and the 2020 Reapportionment Process

Every census generates controversy of some sort, whether over enumeration methods, inclusion and wording of questions on the Census form, or the legislative districts drawn within states following each Census. North Carolina is very likely to gain a 14th seat in the U.S. House of Representatives as a result of the reapportionment process following the 2020 Census. Will this 14th seat be unchallenged? Current population growth trends suggest that this seat will be difficult to contest.

About the Author

Daniel Tompkins is a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill from Durham, North Carolina, majoring in Geography and minoring in Anthropology and City & Regional Planning. He worked with Carolina Demography during the 2014-15 academic year. His academic interests include urban policy and design as well as demographic analysis.

Next week: Redistricting in North Carolina

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