The Numbers:13 Project
His troop, as enrolled: 59,300. Numbers 2:13
Every ten years, the Constitution of the United States requires the government to take a census of the population. The numbers are extremely important. They determine proportional representation in the House of Representatives, factor into disbursement of tax dollars, divide up the Electoral College and all sorts of other things. An accurate count is necessary, though the definition of “accurate” for the census may not be quite as precise as for, say, balancing your checking account.
Like everything else in today’s world, the census has become politicized. The questions you ask determine the answers you get. And when you combine the suspicion people have developed of aggregation of data, quarrels over the nature of the questions, the exact wording and the specificity of the information recorded about any given respondent have become voluble.
I often say that I believe the Bible is true, but not always accurate. To me, the least threatening “proof” of my statement is the census described in Numbers, including in the verse at the top of the column. Somehow, every total of adult male populations was an exact multiple of a nice, round ten. No 17, no 63, no 32. A zero at the end of every total.
Is there a lesson for the US census in this phenomenon? Is “approximately” or “give-or-take” a reasonable standard to which we should aspire?
If the answer is yes – as it seems to be in the Bible – then the discussions of the nature of the questions are really pretty ridiculous. Given the scale of the counting across the country, can’t we just round up or round down or even estimate? Can’t we just do a representative sampling, apply one of those famous algorithms and be done with it?
Actually, I think the answer is no. I am not among those who believe that such a system would be corrupted by those with malicious intent – though I acknowledge the possibility. I base my objection on a theological standard: every person is an entire world. Eliminate one and destroy a world. Manufacture one and affirm something that is not true.
As a matter of principle, every person counts, and each of those persons who is a citizen has the right to cast a ballot for the people who will determine the directions of the community, state and country in which they reside. Among those considerations is how we treat the residents who are not citizens; should they be rounded up and redistributed as political pawns, as some officials recently suggested, or should they receive a fair share of services and support in recognition of their contributions to society and, more important, their basic humanity? I clearly have a preference, but I, like everyone else, only have one voice in the matter.
Which, of course, brings us to the matter of how that voice is expressed: voting. Just as we can’t round off the census numbers, we also can’t round off the tallies of votes. If the census gives us the big picture necessary to reimagine our country on a cyclical basis, elections give us the pixels that make up that big picture. If there is any indication of just how radical the concept of one person, one vote really is, it is the constant attempt of groups fearful of losing power to restrict the access of voters they consider opponents to the polls.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was the first comprehensive legislation since the 19th Amendment (which enfranchised women) to expand the protections of voting to all eligible voters. It was particularly important to – and focused on – southern states where obstacles to African American citizens who wished to register and exercise the franchise were purposeful and steep. Some of those states of late successfully made the case that the original rationale for the provisions of the law had been eliminated. But the creativity of those who would suppress the vote has not abated. Therefore, like the attempts to politicize the census, we must be vigilant in resisting the false claims of fraud that animate opponents of easy access to the polls.
There is a reason the Bible prohibits the deployment of a census except in very specific circumstances. Kings generally counted their able-bodied men when they were preparing for an expeditionary war. The Bible is suspicious of such motivation, and it seems to contextually each census in those very limited contexts. War, of necessity, dehumanizes combatants; victories are too often determined by the number of lives lost (or saved). In those situations, it is not surprising that a rounded number will do. Unlike elections, nobody ever won a war by one life.
But in a society that puts ultimate value on every life, it is important to recognize that no one should feel like a number – unless for each of us that number 1.