Civil Rights Leaders Fear Bush Drags Feet on Flawed Census Data

Undercounting of African Americans Could Cause Loss of Key Congressional Districts

 DECEMBER 20—Still reeling from the Florida debacle, civil rights groups are bracing for another fight next week when the Census Bureau releases its raw tally of the U.S. population. If the past is any guide, these figures will fail to accurately measure the population. That's because Censuses don't adequately count minorities, especially African Americans. As a result, the leaders say, people of color lose out when old congressional districts are redrawn and new ones created.

At a press conference this morning, Penda Hair of the Advancement Project said the undercount probably will lead to Mississippi losing one congressional seat. There are large numbers of African Americans in that state, she said, and if they were properly counted, the seat would be retained. Spokespeople for other groups expressed fears that Asian Americans, whose numbers have jumped dramatically from 7 million to 11 million over the past decade, won't be correctly tallied, and that Latinos will also be undercounted.

The Census Bureau, overseen by the Commerce Department, knows there are problems with the data, and it may release a second set of population numbers, scientifically adjusted, early in 2001. But those numbers may not help minorities, because the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the raw count numbers must be used in determining the number of congressional districts per state, though it left open the possibility that the scientifically adjusted numbers could be used for determining the design of the districts themselves. The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and other groups argue that the scientifically adjusted numbers are more accurate for counting minority populations and hence offers greater assurance that the rights of these voters will be protected.

There's no guaranteee the Census Bureau will adjust its numbers. Under an administrative rule promulgated by the Commerce Department, which oversees the Census Bureau, the decision to release or withhold the scientifically derived figures will be made by bureau execs in mid February. The Bush White House could overturn any bureau decision.

Already five states led by Republican governors and legislatures—Arizona, Colorado, Alaska, Virginia, and Kansas—have enacted laws banning the use of the scientifically adjusted figures. In three of these states—Virginia, Alaska, and Arizona--the Justice Department has intervened under the Federal Voting Rights Act, asking the states to explain why they should not be required to use the adjusted numbers. One state, Virginia, has gone to court against the feds twice, losing both times.

So far, according to Marisa Demeo of the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, the Bush administration has not made any final decision on which set of numbers to use. The Republicans have said they'll wait to see what the adjusted numbers look like before making up their minds. And the civil rights groups concede that it's possible this census will actually have a smaller degree of error than the one conducted in 1990.

 
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