It's roll-call time again: the government is gearing up for the twenty-second United States Census. Article I of the Constitution mandates the procedure; the ground rules, however, have been hotly debated of late, and the Supreme Court will eventually have to settle the matter.

At issue is the question of statistical sampling, and whether it can play any legitimate role in the Census. Backers of sampling contend that millions of people went uncounted the last time around, in 1990, and say that the application of proven statistical techniques can make the 2000 count far more accurate. The opponents are unimpressed, and frankly, so am I.

Begging the obvious question — "How do we know how many people we didn't count in 1990? Did we count them?" — there is, I think, a legitimate reason to fear fudge factors. Cooking the books is, alas, a time-honored procedure among government agencies, regardless of who's nominally in charge, and the notion that the Census Bureau is somehow magically immune to such things is a notion I would not care to defend. Today, everything is politicized, everything is spun for maximum political benefit; opening up this particular loophole means, inevitably, opening a can of worms that won't ever again be closed.

In general, the Republican majority in Congress opposes statistical sampling in the Census; the Democrats say it's because most of those folks who escape the head count are members of traditionally-Democratic constituencies. Maybe it is, and maybe it isn't. Surely no one at this point expects the GOP to have any real goal other than holding on to power as long as possible. But it's likewise implausible that the Democrats are at all concerned about those "missing persons", except to the extent that they might support Democratic candidates. In the meantime, I tend to believe that when the Constitution was written, the intent was to have an Actual Enumeration, going from door to door, or elsewhere if no doors exist — and that if someone really wants to avoid being counted, it would have been the intention of the Framers that he should have that right. I expect the Supreme Court, some time next year, will see it just about that same way.

The Vent

1 December 1998

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 Copyright © 1998 by Charles G. Hill