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The Harvard Mimeograph

I began writing this essay before setting out on a camping trip. Sitting in the passenger seat of my partner’s truck, our child and two small dogs crammed between us, I thought of a summer vacation I’d just been been tracking through the archives. In 1940, a Census Bureau official drove out to the Berkshires in Massachusetts to find the summer home of a Harvard professor. They had matters of strategy to discuss, as they sought victory in an abstruse methodological controversy that had already endured two decades, and had already helped justify a gross failure of American democracy.

Morris Ullman, a young Census Bureau statistician, trekked out to find Edward V. Huntington. To guide him, he used a mimeographed map mailed by Huntington. It is a tellingly numerical document, each leg of each route precisely measured, with a legend at the bottom showing the distances of Huntington’s cabin to nearby cities in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York. It even provided the distance from Huntington’s usual home in Cambridge, MA: 144 miles. It was a form letter as well as a map, with a generic “June” dateline and a space for a date to be penned in if necessary. Huntington couldn’t even go on vacation without quantifying it, or without running his mimeograph.

No records remain of the conversation that Ullman and Huntington had, but we can be sure it centered on their shared intellectual and political project: to convince the United States Congress to adopt a particular method—called “equal proportions”—for deciding how many representatives each state deserved on the basis of its census population.

As we arrived in the Adirondacks and reached the summit of our first hike-able mountain, I day-dreamed about Ullman’s trip, thinking how strange it was that this government official had teamed up with an Ivy League mathematician to convince Congress to pick one algorithm over another, a choice that often had no effect on how representatives were apportioned and seldom affected more than a handful of representatives in a handful of states. But to them it was a crucial question, and one with only one correct answer: theirs. Congress had to see it their way. This methodological debate clearly mattered to its participants.

How should it matter to history?

It is surely part of a larger story, one told by Margo Anderson of “antiurban and antidemocractic laws” propped up by census data, by “‘scientific’ rules and mechanisms to justify their conservative intent.” As Anderson tells it, conservatives in the 1920s used census data to make more acceptable both a severe restriction of immigration and a decade-spanning theft of power from growing centers of (increasingly urban) population.

It is also, more generally, part of a larger story of “Democracy by Numbers,” to borrow Alma Steingart’s wonderful phrase. Steingart examines the methods controversy for all it can possibility tell us about “the possibility of objectively measuring fairness.” Each side believed that a fair, unbiased, objective measurement was possible, argues Steingart. And attending to their fights over those methods can help us better understand similar efforts to bind fairness to science, whether in terms of new efforts to combat gerrymandering with computers or, I’d add, in every new promise of an unbiased algorithmic solution.

What we cannot afford to do is to separate the “technical” debates of the scientists from the “practical” maneuvers of politicians, as Charles W. Eagles does in his otherwise exemplary, in-depth study of the failure of apportionment in the 1920s. As we will see, those who do technical work must understand themselves as political actors, whether they like it or not. Huntington didn’t like it, and denied any political action aside from standing up for “the truth.” But the consequences of his mimeographs tell a different story.

Read entire article at Census Stories