A “nose count” is a tally of people to see how many are present. It’s similar to a head count. The census is a form of nose counting.
Linguists have suggested that the origin of the term “nose count” dates all the way back to the 9th century AD, when the Danish conquered Ireland. The Danes carried out a census by counting noses, so that they could decide how to tax their new subjects. This is also the root of the term “paying through the nose,” since the Danes levied high taxes on each person or “nose.”
In Congress, a nose count usually refers to a running tally of how many members can be counted on to support or oppose a given piece of legislation. In a piece about the First Step Act, a bill which would reduce the mandatory sentencing for some drug-related crimes, the Washington Post wrote:
On Tuesday, McConnell said he will be taking a nose count among the GOP majority “to see what the consensus is, if there is a consensus in our conference, about not only the substance but the timing of moving forward with that particular piece of legislation.
The term has been used in its political sense for some time. In 1943, the Lawrence Journal-World wrote about a “nose count” to assess whether a bill opposed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had any chance of passing:
A farm bloc nose count indicated today the administration might muster upwards of 30 votes to sustain President Roosevelt’s veto of the Bankhead bill but the measure’s sponsors remained confident the senate would override.
Normally, party leaders are charged with keeping a nose count and tracking how much support they can count on. Back in 2009, The Hill wrote about Nancy Pelosi’s effort to assess support for a proposed healthcare program:
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Thursday told fellow Democrats the time has come for all members of the party to say where they stand on the government-run health insurance program…
The nose-counting effort will involve the Democratic whip operation, the Congressional Progressive Caucus and Pelosi herself, according to members who attended the Democrats’ closed-door caucus meeting Thursday.
In terms of the census, “nose count” is more of a term of art than one would think. The term translates to “actual enumeration,” a literal person by person count instead of an estimate. In Alaska, at the turn of the last century, state legislators urged both Congress and the Census Bureau to carry out a careful and precise nose count of the population, instead of simply using random sampling techniques, or other statistical models to approximate population. Alaska’s state senator Jerry Ward said that such an approach was unacceptable:
SJR 8 is a resolution urging Congress and the Census Bureau to do an actual nose count in Alaska instead of a statistical guess of how many Alaskans live here,” Ward said. He added, “the problem with guessing how many people are in Alaska, is that we lose the one person, one vote concept,” said Ward. “Numbers can be artificially exaggerated and disrupt representation on the local, state and national levels.”