Obama's pick for census director sure to provoke controversy

Republicans won't be happy with the choice of Robert Groves, who favors statistical sampling to reduce the undercounting of minorities.

Published April 2, 2009 4:45PM (EDT)

President Obama's pick of a census director isn't exactly a sexy story, but it's likely to be a contentious one. The Associated Press is reporting that Obama's choice to lead next year's census is University of Michigan professor Robert Groves, a former associate director of statistical design at the Census Bureau. The choice is likely to inspire fierce opposition from Republicans, as Groves favors the use of statistical sampling in order to make up for the usual undercounting of minorities.

Republicans hate the idea of statistical sampling, and they say the Constitution supports their position, allowing only a direct count. In 1999, the Supreme Court ruled that sampling could not be used to apportion House seats, but that decision was based on the Census Act, not the Constitution.

Of course, there's a political aspect as well -- the people who are usually not counted by the Census are in demographic groups that tend to vote Democrat. And the Supreme Court did say that congressional district boundaries could be drawn with the aid of sampling methods.

As the AP notes, if there is controversy over Groves, it wouldn't be the first time. In 1990, when he was at the Census Bureau, he recommended a statistical adjustment to make up for the undercount. That recommendation provoked opposition from the first Bush administration, and was eventually overruled by the Republican Commerce Secretary.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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