SALT LAKE CITY — When Utah officials found out that the state's 11,000 Mormon missionaries abroad were not included in the 2000 census, they were mad enough. But when the state-by-state population figures revealed that Utah missed qualifying for its fourth congressional seat by 856 people, the normally even-tempered politicians here blew their stacks.
And they promptly sued the federal government.
Now, Utah is attempting to do what no state has ever done: mount a successful legal challenge to the Census Bureau's byzantine regulations. At stake is a seat in the House of Representatives that for the time being has been awarded to North Carolina.
"I think our case is just," Gov. Mike Leavitt said. "It's high stakes for us. This is a big deal to the people of Utah. It's about our place in the world."
At issue is the bureau's policy of counting federal employees living abroad but not Americans who are temporarily overseas for work or for humanitarian or religious reasons. For example, North Carolina's 18,360 military and federal employees living abroad were counted in the census, as were Utah's 3,545. But according to records maintained by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has filed briefs supporting the state's suit, Utah had 11,176 Mormon missionaries abroad on April 1. North Carolina had only 107.
Leavitt said the numbers support the suit's contention that the government's people-counting policy lacks consistency and fairness.
"Why count one group and not the other?" he asked. "Do we place a higher value on federal service? Does that grant a higher level of citizenship? It's a clear, clear treatment of one group differently from another. I think that falls under equal protection."
Because of Utah's challenge, the House has delayed certification of the seat until after a ruling by a district judge on March 20. Any appeal would go to the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeal.
Both Utah and North Carolina are going ahead with plans to redistrict, should the seat be added. The seat would be filled by an election in 2002.
Challenges to the census are common, but success against the massive federal agency is not. More than 150 suits were filed after the 1990 census, but none managed to claim victory.
"I'm not aware of any case against us prevailing, but it's not for lack of trying," said Preston J. Waite, assistant director of the Census Bureau. Waite fully understands Utah's argument: He's a Utah native and went on a Mormon mission himself. Mormons generally serve a two-year mission before returning home.
But more than Mormon missionaries would have to be counted should the state's appeal be upheld, Waite said.
"We can't put the genie back in the bottle," he said. "We would be required to count everyone. It seems to us impossible to go back and re-create and count the group of Americans that existed overseas on April 1, 2000. We aren't convinced that we could do that and, with a straight face, tell the American people that we have an accurate count."
North Carolina has joined with the Census Bureau to quash Utah's challenge.
Its legal argument cites a 1992 Supreme Court ruling that upheld the Census Bureau's limited overseas count. The court concluded that it was not possible to count all Americans living abroad.
The admittedly uphill battle is Utah Atty. Gen. Mark Shurtleff's to wage. The fact that he keeps a statue of Don Quixote on his desk does not mean he's out there tilting at legal windmills, he said.
"We think the law is on our side," Shurtleff said. "If the courts follow the law, we will win. The courts have said that the right to vote is the right to equal representation. People here have the right to equal representation in Congress. That's the goal of the census--equal representation."