Down for the count

Now that the Supreme Court has barred Census "sampling," what are Republicans going to do to correct the scandalous undercount of minority voters?


C.D. Ellison
January 28, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)

Now that the Supreme Court has blocked a plan to "sample" hard-to-count, mostly minority voters in the 2000 census, it's time for the Republican Party to come up with an alternative plan that ensures an accurate count.

In the 1990 census, an estimated 8.4 million Americans were missed. Problems with the nation's census-taking apparatus are notorious. One midlevel census administrator in Washington who requested anonymity ruefully described the problems in the nation's capital -- the site of one of the worst undercounts: "In '90, some enumerators were caught taking lunch hours when they should have been surveying. Some made up numbers. Others were illiterate and couldn't read the material. The bureau employed retirees and part-time workers looking for extra cash."

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Republican leadership overlooks the disproportionate impact of these undercounts on minority populations in the interest of preventing a statistical sampling "scam" -- and, not coincidentally, the identification of more potentially Democratic-leaning citizens. The Census Bureau itself estimates that it missed only 1.6 percent of the population in the 1990 count, but that it missed 4.8 percent of African-Americans and 5.2 percent of Hispanics.

Instead, party gurus concentrated on preventing sampling. With sampling, argues Peter Cleary, director of Citizens for an Honest Count Coalition in Washington, the 2000 census would be "rife with error."

Got news for you: The census already is.

Of course, the Democrats' sampling plan was a short-term shortcut that paid lip service to minority empowerment. Democrats are masters of public spin and emotional arm-twisting, and backing sampling let them paint themselves as champions of the dispossessed, while portraying Republicans as innately racist. The sampling issue perfectly captures the Big Daddy political paternalism that normally characterizes the relationship between Democrats and their colorful bandwagon of minority interest groups.

Democrats know there's a problem with sampling. Political scientist Bruce Cain at the University of California at Berkeley admits it "does away with bias, but with the danger of creating less precision in the overall count. But it's worse to have bias than a little inaccuracy."

What about not having either? Unfortunately, minority-group leaders, along with Democrats, have grown dependent on strategies like bloc voting, gerrymandering and reapportionment. Inflating minority voting numbers certainly increases power for Democrats. But what does it do for minority power in the long run? The dependence on schemes like sampling only exposes the lack of creativity and strategic planning by minority leaders, who've grown fat selling votes to party leaders for symbolic reward, rather than pursuing lasting, substantive political leverage.

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But the Grand Old Party's successful opposition to sampling gives it something new -- yet old -- to worry about: Its association with blocking strategies to accurately count the minority vote contributes to its problematic, divisive racist image. Privately, when debating census enumeration methods, Republican strategists worry more about losing seats than they do about constitutional guarantees. Contrary to what they've been told, such tactics won't deliver the critical black and Hispanic votes they'll need in 2000, after a drubbing at the polls in 1998. Arguing to continue utilizing a census-taking method long perceived as a conspiratorial mechanism deliberately diminishing minority votes does nothing to help GOP plans for congressional and White House conquests.

I'm a black Republican, and I question sampling, but I have to admit that a minority undercount bothers me no end. In 1990, predominantly African-American areas in California and New York experienced marked undercounts. Show me where whites experienced the same thing, and I'll worry less about the undercount.

The Supreme Court decision may put the sampling issue to rest, but what's the pragmatic alternative to an undercount? As a conservative, I believe some of the burden for the census must fall on individuals -- they must stand up and be counted. But I'm also keen to find the GOP backing strategies that spot the undercounted. The Census Bureau itself could use administrative records to track people who are difficult to locate while the U.S. Postal Service could assist in the overall effort.

And the GOP might try leading a massive, grass-roots census-count drive, similar to Democrats' "get-out-the-vote" tactics, in minority communities. It could provide simpler, user-friendly census forms. It could argue for more funding to hire energetic, competent individuals who'll leave no stone unturned in their hunt for citizens. Dedicated census workers might also appreciate increased security for protection in crime-ridden neighborhoods traditionally avoided by intimidated head counters.

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Such an undertaking would allow Republicans to preempt their counterparts on the left, and could possibly alter their tattered anti-minority image overnight.


C.D. Ellison

C.D. Ellison is a speech writer for House Speaker Newt Gingrich and the author of the forthcoming book "Tantrum."

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