Census Nomination Reignites Debate Over Counting

By Wall Street Journal, Wall Street Journal - May 14, 2009

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama's nomination of Robert Groves to head the Census Bureau has resurrected a fierce debate over how to get the most accurate count of the population -- not just in 2010 but for decades to come.

The conflict is expected to be front and center at Friday's confirmation hearing for Dr. Groves, director of the University of Michigan's Survey Research Center and a former Census Bureau official. Some lawmakers are uneasy about Dr. Groves's longtime advocacy of "sampling," extrapolating a larger population from a smaller slice of it.

Critics say sampling violates the Constitution, which calls for an "actual Enumeration" of the population every 10 years. They worry it would subject the results of the census to political meddling. But proponents argue that certain portions of the population get undercounted -- usually minorities living in large cities -- and say sampling produces a more accurate total.

Preparations for the 2010 census are so advanced that changing the game plan at this point would prove difficult. But Republican opponents are looking beyond 2010, worrying that once confirmed, Dr. Groves could institute changes that would influence future policies of the traditionally nonpartisan Census Bureau.

Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, a Republican who sits on the Homeland Security Committee, which is holding Friday's confirmation hearing, said Dr. Groves "knows if he answers questions correctly about sampling and enumeration, he won't have any problem" getting confirmed. "If he doesn't answer them properly, then he'll have a problem," Sen. Coburn said.

Sen. Coburn said Dr. Groves recently assured him that "anything other than an actual count is unconstitutional." Dr. Groves didn't respond to calls seeking comment.

The Supreme Court in 1999 ruled 5-4 that sampling could not "under any circumstances" be used to reapportion congressional seats -- a major victory for Republicans -- but the ruling left open the possibility that sampling could be used for other purposes, such as redrawing state legislative districts and distributing federal money to cities and states.

Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, whose department runs the Census Bureau, told senators during his confirmation hearing, "It is my understanding that there are no plans in the Department of Commerce or the Census Bureau to use any type of statistical sampling with respect to population count."

But California Rep. Darrell Issa, the ranking Republican on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said the nomination of Dr. Groves "raises serious questions regarding the sincerity of that assurance," calling it an "incredibly troubling selection that contradicts the administration's assurances that the census process would not be used to advance an ulterior political agenda."

Six former bureau directors -- appointed both by Democratic and Republican presidents -- wrote a letter to Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut independent who chairs the Homeland Security committee, describing Dr. Groves as a "nonpartisan, academic researcher" who is among the "most highly regarded survey research methodologists not only in the United States but in the world."

Write to Timothy J. Alberta at

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