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Census Sees No Need to Revise First Tally

Population: Officials' endorsement of unadjusted figures is likely to mean they will be approved, costing California money and political clout. Decision aids Bush, hinders Democrats' strategy.

March 02, 2001|ROBERT A. ROSENBLATT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — In a victory for the Bush administration and Republicans, the Census Bureau recommended Thursday against any adjustment in the 2000 census, although estimates are that more than 3 million Americans, primarily minorities, were overlooked in last year's national tally.

The Census Bureau report clears the way for release next week of the original census figures as the official numbers that will be used in drawing new district lines for House seats and thousands of state and local election districts, and in disbursing $200 billion a year in federal funds.

For California, where both the Legislature and the governor's office are controlled by Democrats, the decision is a particular blow, because the state, with its large minority populations, had anticipated a windfall of political and economic gains from an adjusted census.

Under the original figures, which Commerce Secretary Don Evans is likely to approve, California would receive millions of dollars less than it might get under an adjusted count.

Democrats in Washington had urged in recent weeks that the decision be made by census professionals rather than politicians. In the end, those professionals weighed in against adjustment.

The committee of census experts was "unable . . . to conclude that the adjusted data are more accurate for use in redistricting," acting Census Director William G. Barron Jr. said in his report to Evans.

President Bush and the congressional Republicans, who have long favored using the original data, can now avoid what was shaping up as a bruising political battle.

Some congressional Democrats were calling the census debate the civil rights issue of the decade. The undercount rate is disproportionately higher for members of minority groups than for whites.

One reason is that renters have a greater likelihood than homeowners of being overlooked, and minorities have a lower rate of homeownership than whites.

Democrats anticipated that Thursday's report would favor adjustment, and that the Bush administration would ignore the report and stick with the original numbers. Then, the Democratic strategy would call for attacking the president and the Republicans for being unfair to minorities by denying them an accurate count for electoral purposes.

Now, Democrats will mount some of the same attack, but without the statistical backing they had expected from the Census Bureau professionals.

"Democrats will continue to fight for the principle that every American should be counted just as we fight for the principle that every vote be counted," said Jenny Backus, a Democratic National Committee spokeswoman.

The professionals "ran out of time," she said.

Republicans were jubilant.

"The American people proved you can have a great census using only an actual head count," said Rep. Dan Miller (R-Fla.), chairman of the census subcommittee of the House Government Reform Committee. "The professionals at the Census Bureau have now concluded you can't make a great census any better by using adjustment. Game. Set. Match. The American people win."

Civil rights groups joined the Democrats in expressing disappointment.

"The Census Bureau, while conceding that there is a substantial undercount, simply ran out of time to complete the analysis of the undercount," said Wade Henderson, executive director of the leadership council on civil rights, which includes major civil rights groups.

The Census Bureau should continue its evaluation but should also "immediately release the adjusted census data to the public," he said.

Last year's tally, which counted Americans on April 1, was more accurate than the 1990 census in finding people who are traditionally overlooked, the report says.

A special field survey--conducted after the 2000 census and entailing repeat visits to homes by field workers--indicated a net national undercount of 3.3 million people, in a total population of 281 million. This was a significant improvement from 1990, when the net undercount was 4 million out of the total population of 248 million.

But the Census Bureau experts said Thursday that adjusting the count for the 2000 census might have the effect of overestimating the true population, the report says.

An adjustment might be more accurate, but there is conflicting evidence and there isn't enough time to make an indisputable decision, the Census Bureau experts said. The law requires an official set of figures be transmitted to the states before April 1 so they can begin redrawing district lines.

The report Thursday probably means an uphill legal battle for Democrats. If a Democratic legislature obtained the adjusted figures and decided to use them to draw new districts, a Republican voter could sue on the grounds that the legislators were ignoring the official census figures issued from Washington.

Unlike 1990, when the professionals advocated and were overruled by the first Bush administration, there is now no expert disagreement by census professionals.

As a result, the city of Los Angeles plans to drop its lawsuit against Evans, who said the administration, rather than the Census Bureau, would make the final decision on which set of numbers to use. But Thursday's surprise decision means that Evans is almost certain to accept the experts' recommendation. Therefore, said Brian Currey, the outside attorney for the city, there is no reason to go forward with the suit.

Instead, Currey said, the city might sue to get the adjusted numbers for Los Angeles. The Bush administration and Republicans have said they oppose using the adjusted figures to draw political districts. But they have left open the possibility of using them to distribute federal funds.

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