WASHINGTON -- There is no such thing as a perfect census. Even Thomas Jefferson could not find every American when he directed the first count of the nation's population in 1790.
But the government can try to come as close as possible. With plans for the year 2000 census already under way, a big fight is coming up at the Supreme Court over how to do it.
At stake? Money and votes across the country. Census figures are used to decide how many representatives each state will have in Congress and to draw congressional, state and local voting districts. Also, $180 billion a year in federal funds are handed out according to how many people live in each state and city. The Clinton administration will ask the high court today to let it adjust the 2000 census figures to make up for an expected undercount among hard-to-find Americans, generally urban residents and racial and ethnic minorities. The Republican-led House and a group of voters say the federal census law bars adjustment of the numbers. Urban residents and minorities who sometimes do not get counted tend to vote Democratic. People more likely to respond to the census -- white suburbanites -- tend to vote Republican. So far, two lower federal courts have ruled for the Republicans. "What we're talking about here is adding 30 million people that they have no direct evidence of their existence," said Maureen E. Mahoney, the House's lawyer. "Every modern census has required the use of methods that go beyond a mere single person head-by-head count," countered Peter Rubin, attorney for a government employees' union and other groups supporting the administration. The census is conducted mainly by mail, and about two-thirds of Americans send back their census forms. Census workers then start knocking on doors to find the rest. …