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The Uncountables

Opinion, by Steve Spencer

RIO DE JANEIRO – Public service announcements for the 2010 U.S. Census, running on radio and television stations Stateside, relentlessly make the point that communities cannot get their fair share of resources if there isn’t an accurate count of just who and how many are living where.

The “How It Works”section of the Census’ website, says, “The U.S. Census counts every resident in the United States, and is required by the Constitution to take place every 10 years,” that it “will help communities receive more than US$400 billion in federal funds each year…,” and “[t]he data collected…also help[s] determine the number of seats your state has in the U.S. House of Representatives.”

Next week, census forms will begin to be delivered to every residence in the United States, Puerto Rico, and beyond. Don’t check your mailbox if you are an American living abroad, though. We, apparently, don’t count or, more accurately, are not to be counted.

Why should this be?

When the country was founded in the latter part of the eighteenth century, ex-pat numbers would have been infinitesimal for any country because, until the industrial revolution, during an average lifetime, most people didn’t travel more than say, 25 to 50 miles from the place where they were born. It really wasn’t until after World War II that the highly mobile, globalized society we take for granted began to form. Those who wrote the U.S. Constitution could not have foreseen a time when millions and millions of people would need to or choose to live outside their own countries.

However, in our twenty first century reality, is it not important for the State Department to have census information about ex-pats so it can allocate adequate resources to its embassies and consulates?

Some might raise the question of national sovereignty being a barrier to achieving a census count of Americans abroad. Domestically, the overwhelming amount of census data collected is achieved entirely through the U.S. postal system. So, abroad, there’s certainly no problem with mailing census forms to every citizen that can easily be identified because they have already done so, voluntarily, via State Department registration or through work that can be accomplished by friendly cooperation between American communities and a local, U.S. consulate.

The Census Bureau could use the data collected as a pilot project, isolating it from the rest of the count with an asterisk. The idea is to begin to get a clearer sense of how many, where, and who we and our families are.

None of this requires the additional participation of temporary employees of the U.S. federal government walking around with clipboards ringing the doorbells of Americans living on foreign soil.
Even to the degree that U.S. Census takers would be required, I’m thinking that many nations might grant once-a-decade permissions for this to happen, especially if their own citizens could be employed to do so. Foreign citizens routinely work in U.S. embassies and consulates, so this would not be precedent shattering.

Besides, take a look at the websites of Brazilian consulates in the U.S. right now and you will see, prominently featured, a message that encourages its citizens who are residents in the U.S. to participate in Census 2010 because it will be a benefit for them to do so.

Beyond bean counting, there are broader issues about ex-pats, as regards our representation in Congress. Sure, there’s the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act of 1986 (UOCAVA), which guarantees the rights of Americans living abroad to vote for, at least, federal officials by using the last address at which they resided in the U.S. before leaving the country.

Yet this can lock citizens into districts that may have little or nothing to do with their long-standing ties and personal inclinations. In other words, I’m a native New Yorker. I spent half my life there. Nevertheless, I vote in Ohio because that was where I last lived Stateside.

While I have family, friends, and deep roots in New York and might prefer to vote as a citizen of Queens, NY, I vote in Greene County, OH, until such time I return to the U.S.

I’m not advocating a change in the law. A standard had to be set and I think UOCAVA is the most reasonable solution. Otherwise, citizens abroad could, theoretically, be voting in anywhere-they-please, USA based on little more than whim. And asking county boards of elections to sift through subjective claims of ties to this or that community, based upon family or friends who live there, is unrealistic, impractical, and wasteful.

Regardless, Americans abroad do have representatives on Capitol Hill, but not in any concentrated, focused manner. Consequently, some of our specific interests and issues are obscure and getting assistance can sometimes be difficult.

This leads to the question: Who, indeed, are Americans abroad as a collective community? In terms of raw population, no one can say with any degree of reliability. I’ll buy dinner for the first person that can produce a concrete, government-sanctioned figure that is considered statistically accurate (just pop an e-mail to the editor; he’ll know where to find me). news[at]riotimesonline[dot]com

I doubt I’ll have to shell out the shekels for an extra meal anytime soon because all that appears to be out there are estimates, which at minimum would have our numbers being greater than the individual populations of well over half the states. I have seen a number of figures that average around seven million, excluding the military. By adding this to the current, domestic U.S. population, we would represent approximately 2.25 percent of the total citizenry.

Do we not have unique concerns? Some may answer that question by suggesting that we are spread all across the planet and are a diverse and eclectic lot, making it hard to have such interests represented as a singular group. On the other hand, are Americans abroad any more or less diverse than populations in San Francisco, Chicago, or Dallas?

Thus, maybe there’s reason for the U.S. government to consider changing UOCAVA in favor of creating direct representation for Americans Abroad in Washington?

This could be accomplished by Congress creating a non-voting Delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives, adding an Americans Abroad seat to the list of other delegates representing, respectively, the District of Columbia; the territories of Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa; and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands; as well as the non-voting “Resident Commissioner” to the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico – whose aggregate population of a little over 5 million will ALL participate in the 2010 Census, as will military personnel abroad and individuals residing in the U.S. who are non-citizen permanent residents, non-citizen long-term visitors, and illegal aliens.

The benefit of a Delegate to Congress representing Americans Abroad would be an individual, a staff, and an office that is specifically focused on those matters, which pertain to overseas U.S. citizens. On the other hand, many (myself included) might object to the taxation without (full) representation aspect of a non-voting delegate to the House and no representation whatsoever in the Senate.

The alternative, therefore, would be for the federal government to consider doing what is not uncommon in a number of other nations, which is to not only extend the franchise to its citizens living abroad, but to translate that into full, parliamentary representation (e.g. France, Italy, Portugal). For the U.S., this would grant Americans Abroad, two senators (the same as for each of the fifty states) and, using current population estimates, seven representatives in the House!

Now, I’m not going to hold my breath about that last proposal, especially as it would almost certainly require amending the constitution – an exceedingly difficult thing to do.

D.C. and Puerto Rico residents are required to pay federal taxes, as are Americans abroad. We are all, otherwise, considered full U.S. citizens, so a voting representative makes sense for all of these constituencies. Nevertheless, if citizens in the nation’s capital still can’t get full congressional representation (as, for example, is granted to the citizens of the federal district of Brasilia), much less voting privileges even for its delegate in the House, then Americans abroad shouldn’t expect any change, anytime soon.

And certainly not until Washington sees fit to actually acknowledge that we, too, are a part of our nation – counting by making us worthy of being counted.

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