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From the census to gerrymandering, citizens must demand honesty if we want America to thrive

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This year, the Trump administration's Justice Department announced plans to include on upcoming census forms the question of whether the person filling out the form is an American citizen. Some assert that the question intends to identify noncitizens for immigration purposes. Whatever the reason, it will likely add to the size of some congressional districts, while eliminating representation in others.

Some recipients of the census forms will refuse to complete the forms because they detest Donald Trump. Doing so could affect the size of congressional districts, which are determined by population, not citizenship. Assuming California is a more liberal state that generally finds Mr. Trump intolerable, census recipients there may not fill out the form because of the citizenship question being posed by the Trump administration.

Not completing the form is a crime. The U.S. Census Bureau mails census forms to millions of Americans. According to U.S. Code, Title 13, section 221, a fine of $100 can be levied for Americans failing to complete a census form. Meanwhile, Title 18, section 3571, provides for fines of $5,000 for failure to complete a census survey and jail time of up to five years. Usually, though, Census Bureau officials follow up before levying any fine — usually with a personal visit — to those who fail to answer. Under Article I, section 3, of the Constitution, the taking of a census occurs every 10 years. Article I, section 2, makes it clear that members of Congress are elected by the people, not American citizens, so citizenship doesn't matter in the allocation of U.S. representatives.

For example, many voters in blue states have an aversion to anything President Trump supports. California has elected a Democratic governor and two U.S. Senators who are Democrats. Fourteen of 53 California U.S. representatives are Republicans, the rest are Democrats. If Californians refuse to fill out census forms by refusing to answer the citizenship question, their congressional representation could shrink, and the number of House Democrats in Congress may also shrink. Other states where the population completes the census forms may see an increase in congressional representation.

States worried about future elections, especially red states, should be able to breathe easier if states like California take out their anger on President Trump by refusing to complete census forms. Doing so will only create a population shift that could affect congressional representation. If residents fill out the census forms requesting citizenship information, in spite of their animosity for Mr. Trump, the Trump administration will still get its way by obtaining citizenship information or possibly increased Republican representation in Congress. It's a brilliant political move, if nothing else.

Another issue affecting elections in Congress is gerrymandering of congressional districts, something that should be repaired, perhaps by the Supreme Court, which will likely take up the situation in the upcoming 2018 session. Gerrymandering, configuring congressional districts to advantage Republican and Democratic representatives, makes such districts uncompetitive and prone to extremism, a phenomenon too present in today's politics where some district maps resemble Rorschach tests. Both Democratic and Republican state commissions encourage the same district configurations, oftentimes Republicans say to Democrats on the commission, and vice versa, "We'll leave your representatives alone if you agree to leave ours alone."

Since 95 percent of all incumbents are re-elected each election year, gerrymandering is a factor in the uncompetitive nature of such districts, and extremism takes root. Depending on the district, a liberal Democrat or a conservative Republican can say any outrageous statements they like and still get elected. Such districts often elect their representative in the primary election when the most extreme candidate is usually successful. Therefore, extremism in Congress can be laid at the feet of voters and gerrymandered, uncompetitive districts.

To the extent that straight lines in congressional districts — not gerrymandered districts — make them more competitive, democracy is better served.

If gerrymandering changes, perhaps more qualified candidates will emerge, as they seek to represent districts that are not tailor-made for extremism — places where candidates can utter outrageous statements and still get re-elected. The election process could thereby be opened up. Perhaps then we will see voters elect quality representatives known for their commitment to America, not to their extreme base. Their votes in Congress will represent their commitment to their competitive districts and not be in conflict with what's good for America.

The combination of truly competitive districts and compliance with census requirements will lead to congressional representatives who will better serve American interests and make voters proud. ♦

The original print version of this article was headlined "Misrepresentation"