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N.C. defends Census imputation

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It's OK for the Census Bureau to guess the number of people living in a house when no one can be reached because it is assumed the census can't find everyone, according to court documents filed this past week in federal court.

The argument is being made by attorneys for North Carolina, which stands to lose a recently reapportioned seat in the U.S. House of Representatives if Utah wins either of two lawsuits against the Census Bureau.

North Carolina defends the practice of "imputation" to guess the number of people in a household if attempts to make an actual count fail. The argument is included in a motion, filed Wednesday, that Utah's second lawsuit be dismissed. North Carolina was responding to Utah's recent court filing that details arguments of its case against the Census Bureau, which was filed in April.

When a household could not be reached after several attempts, census enumerators would estimate how many people lived in the home based on similar homes in the neighborhood. Utah leaders and attorneys say the imputed numbers should be thrown out, based on a 1999 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that requires a count of actual persons and prohibits guessing or scientific adjustment.

The Census Bureau used imputation to add 32,457 residents to North Carolina's domestic count, compared to the 5,385 people added to Utah's count. Utah attorneys say imputation is not a count of "actual persons" and is therefore against the law. Eliminating imputation would more than compensate for the 857-person gap between North Carolina and Utah and give Utah a fourth congressional seat. But North Carolina attorneys, who intervened in the case in an attempt to protect their congressional representative, say the use of imputation does not violate the Census Act or the Constitution.

"Since at least 1940, the Census Bureau has used a counting process known as imputation to fill in gaps in its enumeration . . . Imputation is a well recognized and widely employed statistical practice, used to cope with the problem of missing or incomplete data in a survey," the court filing states.

The imputation lawsuit was the second filed by Utah leaders. The first focused on the overseas census count, Utah attorneys claiming it was discriminatory for the Census Bureau to count overseas federal employees and leave out religious missionaries, including Utah's 11,000 LDS missionaries serving in foreign countries. Utah lost that case earlier this year but has appealed the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. Both cases are expected to go before the Supreme Court this fall.

E-mail: ehayes@desnews.com