The Census: Don Evans Takes Over the Count

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Evans' census sensibility has Democrats fuming

Commerce Secretary Don Evans is a mild-mannered and gentle fellow. He calls nearly everyone "buddy" and seems to mean it. But despite his personal countenance, Evans is about to find himself at the end of some very tough political rhetoric. In his first high-profile move in office, Evans Friday issued a rule that makes him the final arbiter over the hotly contested political issue of whether the initial population count is accurate or needs to be statistically adjusted. The move removes from the Census bureau the decision over whether to adjust the 2000 count to guard against an undercount of minorities and low income Americans. Evans says the move is about accountability. "I believe the decision-making authority for the 2000 Census should reside with a person selected by the President, approved by the U.S. Senate and accountable to the people." Democrats think it's a bald political play. "It is a slick, dirty political move that could disenfranchise 4 million people for four years," says New York Democratic congresswoman Carolyn Maloney.

The final population count and how it should be made has become a thorny political issue since the census bureau admitted 4 million people were missed in the 1990 tabulation, many of them blacks and Hispanics. To solve the problem, Democrats — who as the traditional choice of those constituencies stand to benefit most from their being counted — have advocated "sampling," which tweaks the final count through statistical adjustment. The stakes are high: The final numbers will be used to redistribute over $185 billion in federal funds across the country and will be used to draw the districts of the 435 members of the House of Representatives, which could — according to some politicians — help determine which party will control the House after the 2002 elections.

Evans' decision revokes a Clinton administration order issued in October that puts the power for figuring out how to make the count accurate into the hands of the head of the Census Bureau. Maloney and other Democrats are so exercised because they believe career statisticians in the Census Bureau, not politicians, should use science to determine whether the count has been made fairly. "Professionals should make the decision, not the former chairman of Bush's presidential campaign," says Maloney of Evans. But sources at the Census Bureau say that the input of these scientists will not be ignored. Evans has requested a recommendation on the methodology from the director of the census, after which he will seek out additional experts before making a determination. "This framework is open, fair and allows for extensive input from statistical experts in the field throughout the process," says Don Trigg, senior adviser to Evans. In the end, Evans could ratify the decision of the statisticians on his staff to use statistical sampling. Democrats know the only way to make this happen is to increase the political heat. Welcome to Washington Mr. Chairman.