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‘A game of musical chairs’: Dan Bouk’s ‘Democracy's Data’ uncovers lessons from 1940 census data

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Dan Bouk, assistant professor of history at Colgate University and the author of  “Democracy’s Data: The Hidden Stories in the U.S. Census and How to Read Them” — emphasized the census’s use in drawing legislative districts and allocating resources in a guest lecture.


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SEPTEMBER 25, 2022

Dan Bouk, an associate professor of history at Colgate University, underscored the importance of the U.S. census in a guest lecture hosted by UC Berkeley School of Information on Wednesday.

Bouk — who is the author of  “Democracy’s Data: The Hidden Stories in the U.S. Census and How to Read Them” — emphasized the census’s use in drawing legislative districts and allocating resources. In return for revealing one’s personal information, he noted, each member of the public benefits from better governance of their community, state and country.

“The census shapes voting most directly because it provides the data that undergirds and makes possible hopefully a fair drawing of maps,” Bouk said, adding that the legislative maps informed by decennial censuses decide who people are allowed to vote for and which districts people are in.

The book analyzed the 1940 census, which had the most recent individualized data when he started the project in 2017. Data from that era were also used because they are from the beginning of the American welfare state and included many people’s family histories, allowing the book to be more meaningful for readers and the public, according to Bouk.

Bouk noted that, for many years, the size of the House of Representatives tended to grow with the population. That changed in 1920, he added, when house leadership decided that efficiency demanded freezing the house membership at 435 seats.

Since that time, the population has tripled but the size of the house has stayed constant, Bouk said at the event. Although the seats are reapportioned following each census in line with fluctuating state populations, the lack of adjustment for total population growth is problematic, he noted.

“Democracy has become another game of musical chairs,” Bouk said at the event. “Each American’s grasp on their Congress member has become more and more tenuous.”

The 1940 census was significant for how census enumerators interacted with people and how politics affected what data to collect and what to reveal, according to Bouk. For example, who were the people deciding the census questions? Why was the racial category of Mexican erased? How did the Census Bureau break its promise of confidentiality and use its data to identify Japanese-Americans during World War II? How and why one’s actual race might be miscounted?

Although self-reporting is more common today, Bouk said that census forms still represent an interaction between the enumerator and the enumerated that affects how data is collected. Bouk noted that while both methods of data collection have issues with errors, self-reporting gives priority to people’s self-conceptions rather than the conceptions of enumerators.

“It’s really important that people continue to cooperate with the census and participate because that’s how they in their communities can get the resources and representation they deserve,” Bouk said.

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SEPTEMBER 25, 2022