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Set aside sampling for now

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If the Census Bureau is any indication of the level of trust that exists between the two major parties in Washington, things aren't nearly as warm and fuzzy as the political conventions would have people think. While the candidates are trying hard to avoid getting too nasty, an all-out war is brewing over the way Americans are counted.

As early as next month, the Commerce Department could decide whether to let the Census director determine if statistical sampling should be used to adjust the head count currently under way nationwide. That's not as harmless as it sounds. At stake are the boundaries that make up congressional districts within states, and the trustworthiness of the Census Bureau is in question. To delegate that power to the bureau would be unprecedented.

The U.S. Supreme Court already has decided the Census can't use sampling to decide how many representatives each state gets. The Constitution, justices said, means what it says when it calls for an actual enumeration of the population. But the court left open the question of whether states could use sampling methods to determine political matters within their own borders. Republicans fear that would give Democrats an advantage. Democrats say the head count misses a lot of minorities and low-income people every 10 years who tend to distrust census-takers. If they happen to vote for Democrats, so be it.

Supporters of sampling have trotted out former Census directors from both parties, as well as statisticians, academics and demographers, all of whom support the method. Small wonder, that. Statistical sampling is a proven method that is accurate to within a few percentage points. That is not at issue. The Census Bureau's integrity is.

Republicans claim to have evidence that the bureau is being sloppy on purpose in order to bolster arguments for sampling. In May, Rep. Dan Miller, R-Fla., produced an e-mail from a middle manager at the bureau ordering his subordinates not to give daily reports to the congressional General Accounting Office. Also, in Broward County, Fla., workers stand accused of having falsified forms. They turned in a large percentage of forms indicating people either were not home or refused to cooperate with census takers.

The allegations are serious, but it is difficult at this stage to know which side is most influenced by political considerations.

All that is known is that the Supreme Court has ruled sampling unconstitutional for determining the makeup of Congress. That ought to be enough to set aside sampling arguments for now and to instead concentrate on counting people as thoroughly as possible.