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Supreme Court Nixes Census Sampling Plan

The Supreme Court today issued its long-awaited ruling on the ongoing debate over the use of statistical sampling in the 2000 census to compensate for the undercounting of poor people and minorities in the 1990 tally. Upholding two earlier lower court rulings, it said the 1976 census law forbids the use of statistical sampling for determining apportionment--the number of members each state gets in the House of Representatives.

Many statisticians had recommended that the federal government adopt the mathematical technique of sampling as the most accurate way to estimate how many people census takers were missing. The issue has polarized politicians, however, because sampling is expected to increase the count of minorities and poor people, who tend to vote for Democrats.

Commerce Secretary William M. Daley responded to the ruling with a statement saying "we obviously are disappointed" with the decision. But Administration officials were quick to point out that the decision dealt only with the law and not sampling as a constitutional issue. "The Court actually affirmed the legality of sampling" for purposes other than apportionment, Daley said--namely, reshaping congressional districts within a state as well as distribution of federal money to the states.

Nonetheless, the decision raises the specter of a "two-number" census, says Ed Spar of the Council of Professional Associations on Federal Statistics. The ruling prevents the census from going ahead with a plan to count about 90% of the population and use statistical sampling methods to calculate the rest. That means they will have to do a more extensive traditional headcount to get numbers for congressional apportionment, Spar says. But Commerce could also generate a second set of numbers--using sampling techniques to get better numbers on the remaining uncounted population--to be used by states for congressional redistricting.

Republicans, who want a "one-number" census, see further battles ahead. Chip Walker, a staffer on the House committee on the census, says they are still "vehemently opposed" to the use of sampling for redistricting determinations, which they say goes "hand in hand" with congressional reapportionment. Walker says the GOP wants to improve coverage not through sampling but with more public outreach, including paid advertisements.

Whatever happens, time is growing short, as census plans have to be in place in a little over a year. But, says Spar, "anybody who thinks they know what's going to happen is a fool."