Census must count the uncounted The undercount: The Supreme Court decides to consider the issue

October 02, 1995

THE SUPREME Court last week agreed to consider the dispute between those who believe the Census should stick to counting people and those who favor using sophisticated statistical analysis to arrive at total population. Since much depends on Census Bureau population figures, this is an important political, social and economic issue.

It has also been treated as something of a partisan one in the past. Big cities are Democratic turf. But New York City and Los Angeles are Republican-run today, so perhaps partisanship will fade away. It should. It is important for everyone in Maryland, for example, for Baltimore to get its fair share when it comes to apportionment and to federal and state aid based on official Census counts.

That statistical analysis and adjustment are more accurate than traditional door-to-door and mail-in nose counts is really beyond dispute. There is little disputing that the U.S. population in 1990 was some 5.2 million larger than the final Census number. Even the federal district judge who ruled in favor of the use of traditional methods in 1990 said the statistical analysis was more accurate. He just said he thought the law was clear that the Commerce Department secretary, who oversees the Census Bureau, could decide which method to choose.

Even if the Supreme Court's ultimate ruling doesn't lead to remediation of the effects of the 1990 Census -- and it probably won't -- it should make it clear that law or not law, the Constitution requires the best determination of actual population by the Census Bureau. Two centuries ago, even two decades ago, it could be argued that an old fashioned nose count was the best method to determine the population total. Not today. That is so clear, that we trust the Census Bureau and Congress are already planning on the specific methods to determine the undercount in 2000.

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