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 TIME on politics Congressional Quarterly CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics - Storypage, with TIME and Congressional Quarterly

Parties wage war over 2000 census

Brooks Jackson/CNN

April 16, 1999
Web posted at: 5:59 p.m. EDT (2159 GMT)

WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, April 15) -- Nothing seems simpler than counting. It's one of the first things we learn in school.

But try counting baseball fans, when they won't stay in their seats. Not so easy.

Now try counting 275 million Americans, at 118 million different addresses, some with no address at all.


Census workers are already on the streets, trying to list every address. "Streets and homes that were not previously listed have to be verified, checked and entered so the census is complete -- as close to 100 percent as possible," says Tom McGuire, a Census crew leader.

But the Census Bureau says they won't find everybody. Millions of people whose existence is known from birth records and such were just not counted in the 1980 census -- notably minorities, renters, children.

So this time the Census Bureau is proposing to adjust the year 2000 count based on a random sample, like a poll. And Republicans don't like the idea one bit.

David Murray of the Census Monitoring Board says, "It would, if carried out, create a Virtual America, an America based upon a sampling, an imputation, a probability, a likelihood."

Republicans won a partial victory in the Supreme Court this year when the justices barred the use of adjusted numbers for apportioning 435 House seats among the states.

But for all other purposes -- drawing district lines within states for House seats, state legislatures, school boards, city councils -- the Census Bureau still plans to supply adjusted numbers. It's become a hotly partisan issue.

"It's very unfortunate, because it really is the civil rights issue of this decade," says New York Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a minority member of the House Census Subcommittee. "We know if you're not counted, you're not represented, and apparently some members of the Republican leadership don't want to count poor blacks and latinos."

Blacks and latinos vote heavily for Democrats. Republicans say they're being falsely accused of racism.

The Census Bureau plans to contact every household next year, first by mail, then by personal visit if needed. Then, take a sample of 300,000 households, an intense search to determine how many were missed. And based on that sample the bureau make adjustments to 7 million census blocks. Republicans call the adjustments "virtual voters."

Rep. Dan Miller (R-California), Chairman of the House Census Subcommittee: "And I think when you start getting down to census blocks ... they're going to have to add in an individual by characteristics (such as) an African-American female between the ages of 20 and 30 ... the accuracy becomes very suspect."

But accuracy improves as those small blocks are combined into larger census tracts, and those in turn are lumped into congressional districts, averaging more than 600,000 persons each.

At that level most experts say adjusted numbers would be more accurate.

"There are certainly people who disagree with that and have well-thought-out reasons, but I think the weight of professional opinions is that these methods are appropriate for the census," says Keith Rust of Westat, Inc.

There are real reasons to worry. When the Census Bureau attempted an adjustment in 1980 a single computer coding error -- which wasn't caught for more than a year -- inflated the adjustment by a million people.

The director of the Census says it will be better this time.

"It is ... a complicated, challenging task," says Kenneth Prewitt, Director of the Census Bureau. "But the alternative is to just ignore them -- is to say, 'Well, even though we didn't count them and we know they are part of the United States, since we don't know where to put them, we'll just sort of leave them off the census rolls. That strikes us as a social injustice."

Republicans had threatened a partial government shutdown next June to prevent a census adjustment based on sampling. This week, Republican leaders withdrew that threat, but say they'll fight on in the courts.


Chief Justice issues plea for funding (3-30-99)

2000 Census battle heats up (3-25-99)

Supreme Court: Sampling can't be used for census (1-25-99)

Congressional Quarterly: Republicans hail court decision against census sampling (1-25-99)


U.S. Census Bureau Web site


Friday, April 16, 1999

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