WASHINGTON — The U.S. Census Bureau disclosed Tuesday that it made a serious overcounting error in North Carolina in 2000 — which almost (but not quite) would have given Utah an extra House seat instead of North Carolina.
However, Utah's members of Congress and Attorney General Mark Shurtleff say the mistake gives them new ammunition in ongoing political, legal and statistical battles that they hope might just give Utah a fourth seat next year anyway.
"They double-counted a college dormitory. It's a big mistake. It's bigger by far than any mistake found in any other state" in new adjustments announced Tuesday, said Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, a member of the House Government Reform Committee, which oversees the U.S. Census.
The Census Bureau found it counted 2,673 students in a dorm at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill twice. Meanwhile, it found that Utah had been undercounted by 29 people.
At first, Utah officials thought that meant the errors had cost Utah the extra House seat. After all, they had been told that Utah missed that seat by just 857 residents in the original count — and the newly discovered error was much larger than that.
"But it doesn't work that way," said Jay Waite, associate director for the decennial census. The formula approved by Congress is complicated, and it would still give North Carolina that seat. "But the difference now is very small, only about 80 seats."
The main problem for Utah is how division in formulas treated Utah going for a fourth seat and North Carolina going for a 13th — and how that bigger "13" works into algorithms. "They mean North Carolina must lose a bigger number of people than Utah would have to gain for that seat to change," Waite said.
For example, he said Utah could have originally gained the extra seat if it had picked up an extra 857 people. "But for North Carolina to lose it, it would have had to lose more than 3,000," Waite said.
"We'd have to analyze that," said Shurtleff, who in 2001 and 2002 challenged the population counts at the U.S. Supreme Court, in hopes of winning a fourth seat for his state.
Shurtleff said he may ask experts to scrutinize the Census Bureau's math. "If we agree (that Utah still needs 86 people for the fourth
House seat), there's no reason to refile," but if there's a dispute over the calculations, Shurtleff said he'd recommend filing another complaint.
"We are the least-represented state in the country," Shurtleff added. "We deserve that representation" that a fourth seat would bring.
Cannon said Utah will still use the mistake in three different fronts — legal, political and statistical — as it seeks the extra seat.
First, he said delegation members plan to ask the Census to extend the deadline for cities and counties to file "count question resolution" requests. If cities thinks they were undercounted because of such things as boundary changes, they can ask for a review by the Census Bureau to possibly help with population-based grant formulas.
The CQR process is what led to discovery of the problem in North Carolina. However, the deadline for such requests was Tuesday. Waite said all the requests in Utah have been finalized — so no hope exists they could somehow come up with the 80 extra bodies the state needs. Some in North Carolina are yet to be finished.
"We will ask them to extend that deadline," Cannon said. "We are 10 times closer now to coming up with the number we need than when we started."
Next, Cannon said the error may also figure into possible court battles that may allege problems yielding unfair results. "I'm not quite sure how yet," he said.
However, various legal problems loom over any such efforts. For example, the apportionment is now long over — and some lawyers question whether it could be changed even for an error. Also, the CQR process was created with an intent by the Congress not to affect the apportionment.
Finally, the now thinner line between losing and gaining a seat might help a political battle to create two new House seats and give one to Utah.
House Government Reform Committee Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., has proposed increasing the size of the House from 435 to 437 members, and to give a new seat each to Utah and the District of Columbia (whose seat would include some Maryland voters). D.C. currently has no voting House member — prompting it to have car license tags that announce "Taxation Without Representation."
The D.C.-Maryland seat would almost surely be Democratic, and most figure an additional Utah seat would be Republican.
"This new situation helps us build the case that we deserve a seat," Cannon said. He adds that some D.C. officials have started to embrace the idea, and may bring enough Democratic support for passage.
"Also all the Democrats in North Carolina want to solve this, and have this go away," so they don't lose their extra seat, Cannon said.
Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., who represents the extra seat that North Carolina won, said through his press secretary that he had not heard about the situation until notified by the Deseret Morning News.
"He hasn't heard directly from the Census, so he is waiting to hear from them before commenting further. He also doesn't know how this will play out legally, or where we will go from here. But he promises to go to work in the morning," said his press secretary, Joe Bonfiglio.
Meanwhile, Cannon and Reps. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, and Rob Bishop, R-Utah, issued a joint press statement vowing to continue the fight for an extra seat.
They said, "Utah deserves a fourth representative in Congress. After a series of wrong choices and mistakes, today's discovery reaffirms that the bureaucrats who ran the 2000 Census committed malpractice."
Contributing: Diane Urbani