Lawmaker Wants Expats Counted in the Census

By Wall Street Journal, Wall Street Journal - June 15, 2009

WASHINGTON -- Utah Rep. Jim Matheson is pressing to end the Census Bureau's policy of excluding Americans overseas in its once-a-decade headcount.

The Democratic lawmaker said the effort could change procedures for the Census, boosting the count for his state and possibly its representation in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Mr. Matheson wants to avoid a repeat of the 2000 Census, which excluded some 11,000 Utahans living abroad, mostly young Mormon missionaries. Utah ended up 855 people short of gaining an additional seat in Congress, since the Census determines distribution of House seats.

"We really want to strive for accuracy," Mr. Matheson said in an interview. "You never know when it'll make a difference." But with preparations for next year's count in full swing, it is doubtful Mr. Matheson's ideas will be put into practice in time for that survey.

The Democratic lawmaker inserted a provision into the State Department's annual spending bill that would require the department and the Census Bureau to study the feasibility of using U.S. passports to count citizens overseas. The bill passed the House Wednesday and is headed to the Senate.

Currently, Americans aren't counted in the decennial census if they aren't living in the U.S., the exception being U.S. military and federal civilian employees and their families.

Mr. Matheson, whose district cuts a swath of southern Utah and reaches into Salt Lake City's suburbs, said the process the government uses to decide who is counted overseas is "ad hoc."

Counting Americans abroad has long been a point of contention. In 2003 and 2004, the bureau acted on a congressional mandate to study the feasibility of distributing its surveys to Americans overseas. It ruled out counting them after it encountered high logistical hurdles and steep costs.

As part of that study, the bureau distributed 520,000 surveys to Americans living in Kuwait, France and Mexico. The bureau received just 5,390 responses, 3,607 of which were filed online. In the U.S., nearly three quarters of the population responds.

Census Bureau spokesman Stephen Buckner said the last look at a system to count Americans around the world showed an overseas count isn't statistically accurate or cost effective. "Although certain population groups may have better records as to where their residents are overseas, that doesn't apply to the whole population overseas," Mr. Buckner said.

William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., said the census is an accurate count and Utah's qualms are political. "Whether it's a more accurate picture of the population, that's painting around the margins," Dr. Frey said.

It is unclear how Mr. Matheson's plan would be carried out, but the lawmaker sees an opportunity in evolving technology. "I think as with all public policy, it's important to acknowledge how technology changes how you do things," he said. "There may be a better way to get a count."

Write to Jake Sherman at

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