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Utah’s census showdown

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More than a fourth congressional representative is at stake now that the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear oral arguments in the state's challenge to the 2000 census.

The big issue is the validity of the Census Bureau's counting method, known as "imputation." It is a procedure Census officials used to account for about 0.2 percent of the population.

Imputation is used when census takers are unable to contact anybody in a household after several attempts. Census enumerators then estimate how many people live in that home based on similar homes in the neighborhood.

If the Supreme Court rules imputation is invalid, Utah should gain a fourth seat and North Carolina would lose one of its 13. That's because in the 2000 census, North Carolina was given another representative by a scant 857-person margin over Utah.

But North Carolina benefited considerably more than Utah from imputation. Imputation added 32,457 residents to North Carolina's population, compared to just 5,385 for Utah.

In November, the Supreme Court rejected without comment Utah's attempt to have the thousands of missionaries living abroad, but who reside in Utah, included in the census tally. Of those living overseas, only the ones who are in the military or government service are counted by the Census Bureau.

Utah officials are understandably upbeat following the news that the Supreme Court will hear their challenge. They believe that based on a 1999 Supreme Court ruling that requires a count of actual people and prohibits guessing or scientific adjustment, imputed numbers should be thrown out.

Like statistical sampling, imputation is based on a best-guess scenario and not raw data. The key to getting reliable census data, as we have noted before, is to get a more accurate head count. That should be the focus of both Democrats and Republicans for the 2010 census.

Timing is a critical issue now. The court must hear arguments and make a decision during the current session, which ends in June, in order for Utah to gain a fourth seat before November's elections. Utah will ask for the case to be included in the current session.

Less populous states like Utah have only one way to expand their political clout, and that is by expanding their representation in the House. Depending on what the Supreme Court decides, Utah may have expanded its clout by 25 percent, which would be a considerable achievement.