Politics count in census
Officials fear tally will be tainted
By Oscar Avila
The Chicago Tribune, October 4, 2009
Census Director Robert Groves is a by-the-books statistician, but he recently made a heartfelt plea to a congressional subcommittee: If politics taint the census, 'we're in deep trouble … as a Census Bureau, as a census and as a country.'
Days later, politics were back in the forefront when that panel's ranking Republican came to Chicago to urge the census to end a partnership with the Service Employees International Union, which has traditionally backed Democrats.
Partnering with the union 'undermines the integrity of the census,' said U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina.
From ACORN to illegal immigration, the census has become a flashpoint for partisan bickering, a trend that worries officials and experts who say it could harm confidence in the count.
After weeks of GOP criticism, the census cut ties with ACORN, a community activist organization that faced allegations of vote fraud and the release of a videotape showing ACORN workers counseling undercover operatives about how to run a child prostitution ring.
Now some lawmakers, including Republican U.S. Reps. Mark Kirk and Peter Roskam of Illinois, say SEIU has close financial and operative ties with ACORN and cannot be trusted to conduct census outreach.
Census officials say they have confidence that the union can be a reliable partner and went ahead with a scheduled announcement of a campaign geared to Latinos that includes the union and Spanish-language media.
Union officials say they have received no funding from the census and dismissed the complaints of lawmakers.
Terri Ann Lowenthal, a consultant on census issues, said politics have always played a role in the census, including questions about the use of sampling that some say leads to better counts of minority communities.
'But it is more partisan than I've ever seen,' said Lowenthal, a member of President Barack Obama's transition team on census matters. 'It is very troubling. The consequence will certainly be a diminished public confidence in the process.'
Meanwhile, the lightning rod of illegal immigration has intruded into the once-a-decade count.
Liberal Hispanic groups say they are frustrated that the Obama administration has not followed through on a pledge to push legislation that would legalize millions of illegal immigrants. Some are pushing for a census boycott as a protest.
So far, the effort has gained little traction. But with frustration building, Waukegan activist Margaret Carrasco said she plans to organize a boycott in the northern suburbs, where municipalities are facing an influx of mainly Mexican immigrants.
Carrasco said she realizes that the boycott could have the effect of decreasing federal dollars.
'The sentiment is very strong out there that Obama has not come through for us so what are we going to gain by participating in the census?' Carrasco said. Most major Latino organizations have condemned the boycott, saying it would be counterproductive.
The census does not distinguish between U.S. citizens and illegal immigrants, and that policy has prompted a backlash among conservatives who say it isn't fair that some states might receive greater congressional representation because of a high population of illegal immigrants.
Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, introduced a bill last month that would require the census to ask respondents whether they are legal residents or U.S. citizens. Illegal immigrants would not be factored in when the count is used for congressional seats.