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Census Officials Back Head Count, Undercount Millions

By D’Vera Cohn
THE WASHINGTON POST -- WASHINGTON

Census Bureau officials Thursday urged against adjusting the 2000 Census to compensate for people who were missed, dashing the hopes of civil rights leaders that such an adjustment could be used in redrawing political boundaries.

The recommendation was a surprise because census officials previously have portrayed adjustment as a solution to chronic undercounts. But Thursday, they said they could not guarantee that adjusted census numbers would be more accurate than results from mail-in questionnaires and a door-to-door count last year.

A survey conducted after the head count concluded that the census had missed 3 million people, including a disproportionate number of minorities. But census officials said Thursday they had questions about the validity of that survey and until those questions are answered, which could be months, they could not recommend adjustment.

“We were afraid it would be less accurate,” said John H. Thompson, associate census director.

The recommendation from census officials now goes to Commerce Secretary Donald Evans, who has signalled his opposition to adjustment. Evans said Thursday he would announce a decision early next week. Redistricting numbers are legally due to states by the end of March.

The issue of whether to adjust the census has been so contentious that it produced lawsuits against the Census Bureau in 1990 and ended up before the Supreme Court two years ago. With Republicans controlling the House of Representatives by only a few seats, both sides have pushed hard for their preferred figures.

Disappointed Democrats and civil rights groups argued that Thursday’s recommendation was not necessarily a rejection of adjusted numbers, but reflected a lack of time to weigh all the evidence. Some expressed concern that the bureau may have bowed to political pressure from the Bush administration .

“The bad news is that millions of Americans had the clock run out on them,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), until recently the ranking Democrat on the House census subcommittee.

Some Democrats urged the Census Bureau to release unadjusted numbers anyway, so states could consider using them for redistricting even if they were not the figures deemed more accurate by the bureau. Representatives of the Hispanic and Asian American caucuses, who are to meet with Evans Friday, are expected to press him on that issue.

Census officials said they did not have enough confidence in the adjusted numbers to release them yet, though they expect to do so eventually.

“The issue is: Is it fit for use?” replied William Barron, acting census director. “And I don’t think we can say that now.”

Republicans were gleeful. “Game. Set. Match,” read the headline on a statement issued by the office of Rep. Dan Miller (R-Fla.), ranking Republican on the House census subcommittee.

The 2000 Census said the country had 281 million people last year. The survey said there were 284 million. But analysis using some of the other official documents said there were 279 million, meaning the census may have overcounted the country.