The 2010 Census makes a convenient political target since its findings define so much of where federal aid – now the country’s one true growth industry – is apportioned as well as legislative seats in states and nationally. Yet after an abortive attempt to hijack the Census by narrowly focused Democratic groups, cooler heads have now prevailed in the White House.
President Obama has nominated Dr. Robert M. Groves – who currently leads one of the most prestigious social science research centers in the country, the University of Michigan’s Survey Research Center, Institute for Social Research – to be Director of the U.S. Census Bureau. Dr. Groves epitomizes the values of non-partisan science and was previously appointed by and served under President George H.W. Bush as an Associate Director at the Census Bureau from 1990–1992. President Obama also has made it clear that Dr. Groves will report to the Secretary of Commerce, Gary Locke, as he should, and not to the overtly partisan White House chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel.
Now the danger to the integrity of the Census is coming from the other direction: the right-wing of the Republican Party. Rep. John Boehner, the House Republican Leader, expressed “concern” about the selection of Dr. Groves. Boehner said the nominee “reportedly advocated a scheme to use computer analysis to manipulate Census data, rather than simply conducting an accurate count of the American people.” Boehner was referring to Dr. Groves' membership on an eleven-member expert panel of senior Census Bureau staff that reviewed the results of a post-census survey, the Post Enumeration Survey (PES), which measured the accuracy of the 1990 census at the request of President Bush’s Census Director, Barbara Bryant. All but two of the panel’s members recommended that the PES results be used to adjust (not replace) the initial census count. Based on the panel’s suggestion, in mid-1991 Dr. Bryant recommended a statistical adjustment of the census to Republican Secretary of Commerce Robert Mosbacher, who promptly rejected the recommendation.
Other Republicans go much further than Boehner in their criticism of the selection of Dr. Groves. They want to prevent the use of scientifically proven statistical sampling techniques that will insure a complete tabulation of those who are hardest to count, primarily minority populations and immigrants. Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC), the Ranking Member on the subcommittee with jurisdiction over the census, said Dr. Groves’ nomination signaled that President Obama “intends to employ the political manipulation of census data for partisan gain. Mr. Groves is a leading advocate for partisan data manipulation.”
In truth, the party seeking most to gain partisan advantage in the 2010 census count is now Rep. McHenry’s GOP. Secretary Locke has already testified during his Senate confirmation hearing that the 2010 census plan did not include consideration of statistical adjustment for purposes of apportioning each state’s seats in Congress. This conforms to the Supreme Court’s 1999 ruling, but leaves open the possibility of using such techniques to gain valuable insights into the demographic details of America's population.
In contrast, leading Democratic interest groups that originally intended to take a partisan stance on the census, have largely acquiesced to the President’s decision. At the same time non-partisan research groups, ranging from the Council of Professional Associations on Federal Statistics to the American Association for Public Opinion Research, have endorsed Dr. Groves' nomination. These groups, whose professional needs require an accurate census, said Dr. Groves “has demonstrated the scientific capacity and leadership to run the 2010 Census and other programs at the Census Bureau.”
In this age of technology, it is perhaps not surprising that the methodologies by which we conduct the Census have become something of a political football. But politicians in both parties need to understand that it’s in everyone’s interest to make sure that every person is present and accounted for in America’s decennial civic endeavor, the 2010 census.
Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais are fellows of the New Democrat Network and the New Policy Institute and co-authors of Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics (Rutgers University Press: 2008), named one of the 10 favorite books by the New York Times in 2008.