Cardiac attack

Should Al get away with judging George's heart?

By Joshua Micah Marshall
July 14, 2000 10:17PM (UTC)
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"Now speaking of counting, it's wrong what the leader of the Republican Party and this Congress are doing in blocking an accurate census because they don't want to count everyone that they don't think they can count on. I want to count everyone. I want to count all the people of this country." -- Vice President Al Gore speaking to the 91st annual convention of the NAACP.

What's Gore talking about? After the 1990 census it became painfully clear that many people simply went uncounted. Perhaps more importantly, those people didn't fall evenly across the demographic spectrum: They tended to be poor and non-white. And census numbers are no idle matter. They determine how cities and states get federal funds, and how much. And they determine how federal election districts get apportioned and thus how much your vote counts in federal elections. So, hypothetically, a city like Philadelphia or New York might end up with one less congressional seat because a portion of its poor, inner-city residents never got counted.

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Unfortunately, this undercount problem is hard to solve. It's much easier to get a full count in stable suburban neighborhoods than it is in depressed inner cities where people move more frequently, are harder to contact and so forth. So the Census Bureau decided to employ something called "statistical sampling," a series of demographic and mathematical models that rely on sampling to get an accurate representation of who got left out.

Obviously both parties had a healthy measure of self-interest in how this all worked out. But Democrats had the advantage of being on the side of getting the uncounted counted, and that is a little easier to justify than being in favor of leaving people uncounted. Republicans said that the Constitution mandated an actual head count of every individual and fretted that allowing anything but a head count would open the census up to all sorts of nasty political manipulation. The only problem was that virtually every professional statistician endorsed the sampling procedures, and Republican opponents offered no other way to get people counted.

Still, this seems like a case where Bush could pull out one of his oft-used refrains: "Don't judge my heart." Gore doesn't really know the Republicans' motives, does he? I mean, know them. Sure, pretty much all the evidence points to the conclusion that the GOP just wants to avoid counting people who almost certainly won't vote for them. But it's also probably true that some have convinced themselves that they're just standing up for constitutional purity. Bush may never even have thought about the matter. Considering how inflammatory a statement it is, Gore gets singled out this week for a Lie of the Week slap for saying what most everyone thinks, but can't really quite know to be true.


Joshua Micah Marshall

Joshua Micah Marshall, a Salon contributing writer, writes Talking Points Memo.

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Al Gore George W. Bush