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The Great American Count-Off: The Census, Representation, and Apportionment

April 1, 2020 is Census day! This once in a decade event serves many important purposes beyond just determining how many people live in the United States.  In this eLesson, students will analyze the important role the Census plays in our political system, assess the changes the Census system has undergone throughout our history, and explore how individuals are represented through the Census.


Warm-Up Activity (5-10 minutes):

Write the following question on the board: What is a census and what is its purpose? Lead a class discussion around this topic to hear student’s thoughts. Tell students that the U.S. Census primarily exists in order to determine the number of representatives that each state receives in the House of Representatives. Explain the idea of representative government if needed and how it contrasts with a direct democracy. If students are unfamiliar with these terms, use Handout A as a point of departure for discussion. Conclude by asking students the question: How many people should an individual in the House of Representatives represent?

Activity (30 minutes):

Have students read Handout B and Handout C, then answer the following questions. Lead a class discussion, with students sharing their answers.

  1. How often does the Constitution call for the Enumeration of the number of persons living in the U.S.?
  2. What important change does the Fourteenth Amendment make concerning who is counted by the Census? Why do you think this change occurred?
  3. Consider the following quote by James Madison from Federalist #55: “Sixty or seventy men may be more properly trusted with a given degree of power than six or seven. But it does not follow that six or seven hundred would be proportionally a better depositary. And if we carry on the supposition to six or seven thousand, the whole reasoning ought to be reversed. … In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever character composed, passion never fails to wrest the scepter from reason.” Explain Madison’s argument in your own words. Do you agree with his reasoning, or do you think the House of Representatives would better represent the interests of the people if there were more members?
  4. Why are representatives apportioned by state? What role do states play in our constitutional system?

Extension Activities:

-For more materials on the Census, how it works, and its historical impact, be sure to visit the U.S. Census’ website. – Our Think the Vote platform is designed to foster civil discourse among students on current event topics. Students with the best responses to each of our bi-weekly questions will win a gift card, BRI shirt, and swag. Plus they will be entered for the chance to win the grand prize of $1,000!