May 13, 2009

May 13, 2009 | Commentary on

Could 2010 Census Include Make-Believe People?

Left-leaning groups want to include millions of pretend people in the real-life 2010 Census. It almost happened in 2000. This time, they might get their way

The administration claims it has "no plans" to use statistical sampling to augment the actual headcount next year by adding millions of fictitious people.

Statistical sampling creates profiles of make-believe people, assigning them an address, a gender, race, age, income, and other characteristics. And it counts them, just as though they were counted by a census worker.

Obama's choice as new Census Director is University of Michigan Professor Robert Groves, who faces a Senate confirmation hearing May 12. Groves is a champion of statistical sampling.

As reported by the Associated Press, "When he was the bureau's associate director, Groves recommended that the 1990 census be statistically adjusted to make up for an undercount of roughly 5 million people, many of them minorities in dense urban areas who tend to vote for Democrats."

Conservatives worry that, having learned from the failure of Bill Clinton's high-profile push for census sampling, the administration has adopted a stealth approach.

The stakes are huge. Census figures determine each state's seats in Congress, the district boundaries for political office, plus how the states divvy up $300 billion in federal aid. Statistical sampling might shift up to 30 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. That shifts votes in the Electoral College, too, affecting presidential outcomes as well.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), ranking member of the committee overseeing the Census, called Groves' selection "incredibly troubling [because it] contradicts the administration's assurances that the census process would not be used to advance an ulterior political agenda."

Undercounts are hotly political. The Left argues that minorities and illegal immigrants are usually undercounted. They seek statistical "adjustments" to add made-up people, using assumptions and formulas that can be both factually wrong and politically manipulated. You might not get counted, yet your tax dollars could be spent to count millions of fictitious people.

Is statistical sampling constitutional?

The Supreme Court dodged the question in 1999. Its ruling enabled the then-Republican Congress to block President Bill Clinton's sampling plan for the 2000 Census. But the narrow ruling left room for a future Congress and President to change the result.

By 5-4, the Court declared that current statutes do not permit sampling to decide how many seats each state would have in Congress. Left unaddressed were the Census Bureau's ability to adjust numbers that determine seats for legislatures and local governments, the drawing of congressional district boundaries (performed at the state level), and allocation of federal money.

Most importantly, the Court avoided ruling on what Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution requires: "[An] Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct."

Does the last phrase leave wiggle room for sampling if the law is changed? The justices didn't decide, although Justice Antonin Scalia tried. "To give Congress the power . . . to select among various estimation techniques having credible (or even incredible) 'expert' support, is to give the party controlling Congress the power to distort representation in its own favor," he wrote. Only genuine enumeration, according to Scalia, guarantees the "minimal possibility of partisan manipulation."

Any future ruling will come from a Supreme Court that includes an Obama appointee -- and starts with built-in agreement from Justices Stevens, Ginsberg and Breyer that sampling is okay.

Regardless of what courts may say, some think the country is safe from sampling because they believe there's not enough time for President Obama and his team to implement it. Is there? Clinton's Census Bureau in June 2000 posted plans in the Federal Register claiming that in nine months they "could hire sufficient staff and acquire the necessary equipment to complete Census 2000 and produce statistically corrected redistricting numbers by the April 1, 2001, statutory deadline." The Obama team currently has almost 23 months from now to meet the April 1, 2011, deadline.

Congressman Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) believes the danger is real. As ranking member on the subcommittee that oversees the Census, McHenry describes a scenario whereby sampling is offered as an emergency remedy for problems after the Census is taken next April.

The Government Accountability Office recently told Congress that problems "threaten the accuracy" of the Census. Plans to use handheld computers have already been scaled-down, requiring a reversion to pencil and paper.

The Democrats who chair the key House committee and subcommittee -- Reps. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) and William Clay (D-Mo.), say they are "deeply concerned that the Census Bureau will not be able to complete its constitutionally mandated responsibility." Their Senate counterpart, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) calls it "an impending state of emergency."

Another worrisome sign: In March, the Census Bureau named ACORN, the liberal group accused of registering thousands of non-existent people to vote in 2008, as one of its "national partners" to help count heads.

With its impact on dozens of Congressional seats, the Electoral College, and the allocation of billions in taxpayer dollars, the possibility of sampling demands attention. The potential for political tampering and manipulation is too huge to ignore, whether those in power have pure intentions or Machiavellian intent.

As Joseph Stalin said, "Those who cast the votes decide nothing. Those who count the votes decide everything." And so could those who count the voters.

Ernest Istook is recovering from serving 14 years in Congress and is now a distinguished fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Ernest Istook Distinguished Fellow
Government Studies

First Appeared in Human Events