Electronic Census Questioned

Posted March 31, 2008 at 6:38pm

Two years before the 2010 Census, lawmakers are worried that problems with the Census Bureau’s new electronic system could jeopardize a timely and accurate count.

Experts say that could spell trouble for the census’s one constitutional responsibility: providing the information for Congressional redistricting and reapportionment.

“States depend on accurate data,” said Tim Storey, an election expert at the National Conference of State Legislatures. “Any sort of operational glitch that may diminish the quality of data or call it into question is a huge concern.”

With the census due to begin on April 1, 2010, Congress and the Government Accountability Office already have questioned the bureau’s methods — and whether those methods will lead to inaccurate results.

Primary among the concerns are the new hand-held computers that employees would use to collect data. The devices were intended to save the bureau time and money by connecting employees out in the field to centralized offices. Outfitted with GPS, census workers were supposed to be able to instantly map out residences and send completed questionnaires to a database.

Instead, tests last year revealed flaws, including time lags and technical problems.

The GAO also has reported that the bureau was relying on the private Harris Corp. to develop the technology without setting appropriate standards. In March, it put the census on its “high-risk” list, the watchdog agency’s short list of government undertakings in need of immediate attention.

Census officials admit that “there are serious issues and challenges facing the 2010 Census,” said spokesman Stephen Buckner. But they are still testing out the hand-helds and discussing the next step.

Controversy surrounding the census is nothing new. With every census comes objections to the numbers; after all, those numbers determine not only redistricting and reapportionment but also funding for a slew of government programs. Any slight has widespread and decade-long consequences.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is closely watching the entire process, said Hilary Shelton, director of the group’s Washington bureau. Minorities have historically been undercounted, he said, and any problems with the technology used in the census would have exaggerated effects on those communities.

A flawed census could mean that those groups are “left out of the equation” of redistricting, he said. The 2000 Census was the best count yet, he said, but a flawed 2010 Census could reverse that trend.

“When the technology begins to break down, when political will begins to falter, it is the racial and ethnic communities, as well as the poor” that take it hardest, he said. “Those are the communities that end up losing.”

Although lawmakers have expressed concern about the census, several staffers said the issue is more one of funding than of complete failure.

The census’s initial cost was $11 billion, which is more than any previous census. But to get the hand-helds working on time, the bureau may need $1 billion more — and even that money may not solve the problem, according to the bureau’s IT adviser, the MITRE Corp.

If that’s the case, the bureau may revert back to paper and pencil, but even that would be time-consuming and costly to orchestrate. The bureau has changed how it operates since 2000, and officials would have to quickly overhaul their plans.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), who is a member of the committee that oversees the census, has called the situation a “statistical Katrina.” The census’s current problems will definitely cost more money, she said in an e-mail, but it is unclear whether those issues will result in a flawed census.

“Hopefully the Secretary [of Commerce] will come up with a workable plan that allows the census to go forward without compromising accuracy, but it is still too early to tell,” she said. “Obviously, if accuracy should suffer, it might affect redistricting. We need to work to ensure that doesn’t occur.”

Census officials are expected to discuss their plans Thursday, when they appear before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies. At that point, they will be two days past the date that had been set for their final dress rehearsal.

That rehearsal was originally slated to take place today, or exactly two years before the actual census. Now it is scheduled for May 1.

Storey said he has been meeting with census officials regularly to discuss the problems. “Time is up,” he said, and measures need to be taken.

The last time Congress failed to reapportion seats was in 1920, partly due to rural Members blocking the vote. At that time, the census’s results would have moved many seats from rural areas to urban ones, reflecting the movement of citizens and a growing number of immigrants.

But staffers and experts, including Storey, said they doubt the census will ultimately stall reapportionment or redistricting.

“Are we concerned? Yes, and I do sort of speak for legislators in that regard,” he said. “But on other hand, I feel confident that they’ll get it done and get it done right.”