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How does census count thee? Let us count the ways

Charles Bierbauer

By Charles Bierbauer
CNN Senior Washington Correspondent

December 4, 1998
Web posted at: 8:59 a.m. EST (1359 GMT)

In this story:

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- If we counted noses around my dinner table this evening, there would be three. And if a census taker were to ring the doorbell, preferably not at dinner time, that's the count my wife, my son and I would give.

True, my family is bigger than that. The census takers, either by mail or by going door-to-door, are likely to find another son and his wife at their Maryland home, and my daughter at her Pennsylvania apartment.

But will they track down the son who's on a remote organic farm in Hawaii? Good luck!

Census 2000 will set out to find the nearly 300 million people living in the United States. Or at least as many as it can, counting one by one. Or at least 90 percent of us, if the Census Bureau is permitted to estimate the rest.

It's the method of counting that's in dispute, and now in the hands of the Supreme Court.

Nose to nose across America

The nine justices (all present and accounted for) heard arguments this week from the Clinton administration, which wants the court to allow a "statistical sampling" to define and categorize that final 10 percent.

Count 'one' here ...                  and 'two' here!   

The administration contends that will overcome what's called the "undercount" that the Census Bureau's own statisticians say amounted to some 4 million noses -- 1.6 percent -- when the last census was taken in 1990.

Some justices were skeptical that sampling would be any more accurate than the nose count.

"How do you know what the true number is?" Chief Justice William Rehnquist asked Solicitor General Seth Waxman, arguing for the administration's approach.

"Demographers and statisticians have the means ..." Waxman parried.

"Why do we need a census then?" Rehnquist interrupted with a touch of sarcasm.

"There's a constitutional requirement," Waxman conceded. The U.S. Constitution requires that an "actual Enumeration shall be made" every 10 years.

"Most people would think that 'actual Enumeration' means a count," not an estimate, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor told Waxman.

Those recurrent common denominators: power and money

Why does it matter how we're counted? Why should we care? Political power and money -- billions in federal dollars -- are at stake.

The Constitution specifies that the "Enumeration" will be used to determine the numbers of representatives each state has in Congress.

Census form

After Census 2000, some states will gain House seats -- California, Florida and Georgia among them. Others are likely to lose seats, including Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Missouri.

The accuracy of the count could mean the gain or loss of a seat, and the political and fiscal influence that comes with it.

Further, state legislatures use the census's apportionment to redraw the lines of congressional districts. And cities and states receive federal dollars for programs based on population.

"In terms of hard cash, it was $640 per child through the course of a year," NAACP President Kweisi Mfume explained recently in an interview on the playground of Baltimore's Arlington Elementary School.

"In Baltimore alone, 11,000 children were not counted. That's a lot of money for infrastructure, for books, for resources, that is not realized."

Missing in action

Arlington Elementary's student population is 98 percent African American.

Minorities and the poor -- urban and rural -- are more likely than some other socio-economic groups to be undercounted in a census for several reasons.

Census officials report that while two-thirds of Americans mail in the initial census survey, these groups are less likely to do so. They also are less likely to be found when a census taker makes door-to-door calls.

And there might be another reason: a lack of trust.

"There's been a reluctance to always want to tell the truth to people who want to get into your business," Mfume said of minorities and the poor. "'How many kids do you have in this house?' If the answer is five, you might say 'two.'"

That kind of reluctance worries some of the justices. Justice John Paul Stevens quizzed attorney Maureen Mahoney, who argued for the Republican majority in the House that had raised the initial challenge to the Clinton census plan.

Justice Stevens imagined an apartment building full of immigrants wary of being counted.

Stevens: "If you got no response ... what's the Census Bureau to do?"

Mahoney: "Your Honor, they can't guess."

Stevens: "You'd put down 'zero' then?"

Mahoney: "That's right."

Stevens: "Even though you know there are a lot of people there?"

Justice Steven Breyer: "Even if the lights go on and off in the evening?"

Sampling 'virtual' people?

The Republicans -- and 16 individuals in half a dozen states who have brought a parallel case -- argue it's unfair to estimate those who do not come forward.

Census taker
Census takers go door-to-door across the nation   

They contend that creates "virtual" people who would dilute the vote and the entitlements of people who have actually been counted.

Two lower courts have supported the Republican case that neither the Constitution nor census legislation permits sampling when it comes to divvying up seats in the House of Representatives.

Separately, it would appear sampling could be permitted for doling out federal funds based on population. The Constitution does not address that. But Congress is not likely to be inclined to pay for two separate census methods.

The Supreme Court is expected to rule by spring. That would give the Census Bureau a scant year to prepare for whatever form Census 2000 is allowed to take.

The justices, though, did not sound eager to have to sort out a dispute that is as much political as it is legal.

"I don't like injecting us into a battle between the two political branches," groused Justice Antonin Scalia.

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