Counting the People: Court to Settle Dispute Justices to Hear Arguments Today on Controversial Census Method That Could Alter Makeup of Congress

Article excerpt

Every 10 years since 1790, US officials have fanned out across the nation to try to count each person residing in the country. And, not surprisingly, every decade since 1790, they have failed at that task. While census takers find and count more than 98 percent of Americans, they consistently are unable to locate a particularly elusive segment of the population that includes the rural poor, minorities, renters, recent immigrants, and children. By some estimates, the uncounted number 4 million to 5 million. After years of research, the United States Census Bureau decided to use statistical sampling methods to compensate for this chronic population undercount. But the bureau's plan for the 2000 census has sparked a political firestorm over whether federal law and the Constitution permit the use of sampling techniques. Argument on both sides Today, the US Supreme Court will hear arguments on both sides of the issue. Opponents of sampling, including many Republicans in Congress, say the Founding Fathers mandated a physical head count to ascertain the population. Sampling proponents, including the Clinton administration and many congressional Democrats, say statistical techniques can help produce a more accurate count and guarantee full representation for the entire population. The issue is critical to members of Congress because the census is used to divide the 435 House of Representative seats and other legislative districts nationwide. In addition, it is of great interest to cities and counties because census population statistics determine the allocation of billions of dollars in federal aid. If a majority of justices uphold sampling, the resulting slight population adjustments to the overall census data could mean more federal dollars spent in areas plagued by past undercounts, such as Los Angeles, New York City, Miami, and parts of Texas. And that could rewrite the map of congressional representation, with Indiana, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin - among other states - possibly losing a seat in the House of Representatives. Although the battle is being waged with legal and constitutional arguments, some analysts say the motivating force behind it is pure politics. These analysts say Republicans perceive the census undercount as helping them maintain control of Congress, and Democrats believe the recognition of previously uncounted Americans will strengthen their hand. …


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