It's Not Whom You Count, But Who Counts

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To understand the mess in Florida, consider the census.

Yes, I mean that once-a-decade counting of the U.S. population mandated by the Constitution — that fat envelope from the U.S. Census Bureau which you may or may not bother to open, much less answer.

And that's the problem. Because you might not have filled in that questionaire, you may not have been counted, just like folks in Palm Beach County whose chads got not further than just being impregnated.

The reason the census is relevant to the imbroglio in Florida is because it has to do with theories of counting citizens (or voters, if you prefer) — and the way Democrats and Republicans divide on that issue directly mirrors the tactics of the Gore and Bush forces in Tallahassee.

You may not think counting citizens is political, but then again, people didn't think the actual mechanics of counting votes was political either. Au contraire.

The constitution calls for an "actual numeration" of American citizens. Simple, right? Not so fast. It's not the number of people or the number of votes, but how you count them. It's not the votes or the folks, it's the methodology.

Take the 1990 census. Experts estimate that some 4 million Americans were not counted. The lion's share of those missed were minorities, immigrants and the poor living in cities and rural areas. That is, folks who may be hard to find or just don't want to be found. And by the way, most of these people are Democrats, or at least would be Democrats if they bothered to vote — or be counted.

To remedy this, the U.S. Census Bureau has proposed using statistical sampling to improve the accuracy of the final tally. That means they would do an actual physical count of as many people as they can find in a given census tract, and then employ a mathematical model to fill in the holes.

Sounds sort of reasonable. Perhaps, but not to Republicans who find the idea of sampling threatening and intolerable and downright unconstitutional. They claim that the constitution means counting every person in the flesh, not some fancy statistical model put together by statisticians and sociologists to imagine people who may not actually exist. And who, if they did really exist, would probably punch a hole for Al Gore.

But, you're probably saying to yourself, Isn't that the opposite of what's going on in Florida, where the Democrats are saying count every vote and the Republicans are saying, hey, let's not be fanatics here about trying to count every last person?

You'd be right. You see, the Democrats want to count everybody for one simple reason: They believe there are more Democratic bodies out there than Republican ones, and those bodies who are disproportionately undercounted are typically Dems. They also know, though they're not going to embarrass their supporters by shouting about it, that Democratic voters mess up more when they get inside the voting booth. That's why in the case of the census the Democrats are in favor of sampling and in the case of Florida they're in favor of counting every last hanging chad. More is better, and whatever methodology gets you more is the better course.

The Republicans are in favor of the moral equivalent of a hand count when it comes to the census because such fine-grained specificity actually means leaving out a lot of folks, most of whom are likely to be Democrats. And that's the same reason Jim Baker and Katherine Harris are in favor of chopping off the hand count in Florida. Less is more when it comes to Republicans. (By the way, Texas was ground zero for undercounting in the 1990 census. Governor Bush is on record as saying that he favors using actual count numbers rather than sampling. Why haven't the Democrats used this quote against him in Tallahassee? )

There is no such thing as a perfect census or a perfect vote count — whether you do it by machine or hand or personal visits with candy and flowers. The Democrats yearn for something close to the Platonic ideal of counting everybody, whereas the Republicans are more laissez-faire about it; their attitude is, those who don't care to be counted, or don't bother to punch a hole with any precision, don't really deserve to be counted. Their notion is, You've got to earn that franchise by at least following instructions. The Democrats response is, the thought should be the father to the deed and if we have to read voters's minds, so be it. That's what Democrats mean by "the intent of the people."

In short, the Republican attitude is, "Life's unfair — deal with it." For the Democrats, 'Life's unfair — what can we possibly do to make up for that?'

Of course, both attitudes neatly dovetail with the final rule in politics, whether it be in Washington or Tallahassee: You can always count on each party to do what is in its own best interest.