Recent Court Decisions about the Census, Adjusting for Census Undercount and the Use of Census Data to Apportion Congress and the Electoral College Introductory Comment

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Recent Court Decisions about the Census, Adjusting for Census Undercount and the Use of Census Data to Apportion Congress and the Electoral College
Introductory Comment

State officials have often assumed that the federal census undercounted their population but, until the Civil Rights Revolution, they did little more than complain. There are two exceptions. After the 1870 enumeration, officials in California and Nebraska concluded that there was so much undercount that they were each entitled to one more seat in the House of Representative. Both states elected one more Congressmen than they were assigned by the regular apportionment. Congress refused to seat these two additional individuals.

Prior to 1920, the census data was either June 1 or April 1 although the enumerations continued for long after the designated day. The 1920 count was to be taken on January 1. When the count was released many rural states in the Midwest had smaller populations than they anticipated. They argued that there were very many men who worked and lived on farms during the summer and would have been counted in their states if the census had been conducted on June 1. Instead, they were temporarily living in big cities waiting for the start of the farm season. In addition, those who strongly opposed immigration and who believed the nation was suffering greatly from the large flow of eastern and southern European migrants, believe that the census tilted the balance of political power toward states with the large cities where the immigrants lived. Because of a variety of political controversies, Congress never got around to using data from Census 2000 to reapportion Congress and the Electoral College.

Baker v. Carr 369 U. S., 186 (1962)

The constitution of Tennessee required that the state legislature reapportion itself every ten years using census data. However, the state legislature had not been reapportioned since 1901. The Supreme Court ruled that the Tennessee legislature had to reapportion itself using census data. Very importantly, the ruling was interpreted to mean that all electoral districts at all levels of government had to represent very nearly exactly the same number of people as counted by the census. Note this decision does not deal with representation in Congress. Rather it mandated that when electoral district were drawn, that had to have almost exactly the same population size using data from the census.

Voting Rights Act of 1965

This law sought to end a variety of practices that made it difficult for black to vote in numerous southern states. There were also a few counties in which very few Indians had been voting. If fewer than 50 percent of the eligible population voted in November, 1964; than any change in election procedures in those areas had to be approved by the Department of Justice – the preclearance approval process. This law did not mandate that electoral district be drawn to more or less guarantee the election of minority candidates but any election decision that minimized the chances of minorities electing a candidate were scrutinized. In general at the time of reapportioning elected bodies, Republicans have favored the policy of “packing” minorities into the smallest number of districts while Democrats have favored “unpacking minorities;” that is, distributing minorities across many districts. This law has been amended several times and led to much litigation. It places an emphasis upon census data by race.

Litigation Following Census 1980
Young v. Klutznick 652 F. 2n, 617

This was the mother of all litigation about adjusting the census for net undercount. It was filed in Detroit on census day 1970 – April 1. Lawyers for the city of Detroit argued that there was clear evidence that earlier census had undercounted blacks at a higher rate than whites. Thus if census counts from 1970 were used residents of city such as Detroit would be unfairly denied representation and the city would get too little federal funding. The city charged that the Census Bureau was aware of the undercount issues but had failed to take steps to carry out a full program that would allow for adjustment for undercount. The Bureau claimed that they made great efforts to count everyone consistent with Congressional mandates and funding. The City of Detroit, however, asked the judge to force the Census Bureau to release adjusted data. The district judge for the Eastern District of Michigan, Horace Gilmore, ruled for the plaintiff. The Department of Justice appealed and the Second Circuit recognized that there was substantial undercount and a major difference by race but through out the litigation on the grounds that Detroit did not have standing to sue.

Cuomo v. Baldridge, 1987

This litigation involved the same issues as the Detroit case. It was the longest running census undercount case in this nation’s history. The City of New York sued after the 1980 census arguing that the Census Bureau had done a poor job counting the city’s population thereby unfairly denying the city representation and funds. Unlike Detroit’s case, this one emphasized the quality of the census taking. The trial, appeal, retrial were followed by a 30 span waiting for District federal Judge John Spizzo to issue his ruling. He did so in 1987 finding for the defendants. This ended litigation about adjusting Census 1980 for net undercount.

New York v. Department of Commerce 1989

The state of New York sued the Department of Commerce in 1988 arguing that Census 1990 would likely undercount urban residents and minorities thereby denying New York residents their fair share of federal representation and funding. The theory of their case was the Census Bureau was not conducing research to adjust for net undercount. They demanded that the court order the Department of Commerce to prepare for adjusting for undercount. On the day the lawsuit was to go to trial, the Department of Justice proposed a settlement that was accepted ending the litigation. The federal government agreed to conduct a post-enumeration survey that would gather data pertinent to adjusting for undercount. An eight person panel – four appointed by the defendants and four by the plaintiffs would advise the Secretary of Commerce about whether the 1990 census count should be adjusted for undercount. This decision was to be made on July 15, 1991. That is an interesting date since, by that time, Congress and many states would have already reapportioned legislative bodies. The Census Bureau released population counts for the reapportionment of Congress on January 1, 1991 and for states on April 1, 1991. President George H. W. Bush’s director of the Census Bureau, Barbara Bryant, recommended that Census 1990 be adjusted for undercount but Secretary of Commerce Mossbacher ruled against it. His decision was final.

Supreme Court Decisions Concerning the Census of 1990
U. S., Department of Commerce v. Montana 503 U. S. 442, 1992. Because of slow population growth, Montana lost one of its two congressional seats after 1990. Thus the ratio of residents to congressional representation was highest in Montana. The typical congressional district contained about 600,000 residents but the more than 900,000 Montana residents had only one representative in Congress. The state sued claiming the loss of representation violated the constitutional rights of Montana but the Supreme Court rejected the claim. This suit was not about the quality of census count but rather about how Congress reapportioned itself.
Franklin v. Massachusetts 505 U. S., 788 1992. For 1990, 2000 and 2010, the Census Bureau – acting with Congressional authority – has defined an apportionment population of the United States. This includes the resident population of the country – citizens and non-citizens plus United States persons serving overseas in the military or working for the State Department and their dependents in so far as they can be identified by administrative records and linked with a state. The State of Massachusetts lost a seat in Congress after 1990 and argued that Congress had breeched the Constitution by defining the apportionment population to include some – but not all – Americans overseas. The Supreme Court rejected their claim contending that Congress had the power to define the apportionment population.
Wisconsin v. City of New York, 517 U. S. 1, 1996. According to a 1989 agreement between the state of New York claiming that undercount would be likely in the Census of 1990 and the Bush Administration, the Secretary of Commerce had the power to decide whether or not adjusted census data would be used for congressional apportionment. Secretary Mossbacher in 1991 decided against this. The City of New York – which would have gained a seat in Congress had there been an adjustment for undercount—argued Secretary Mossbacher’s decision was unconstitutional and a federal district court agreed. Wisconsin-, which would have lost a seat with the use of adjusted census figures-, sued to overturn the use of adjusted census courts and won district and circuit federal court rulings. Since lower federal courts disagreed, the matter came to the Supreme Court and they upheld the constitutionality of Secretary Mossbacher’s decision. This ended litigation about adjusting Census 1990 for undercount.
Litigation concerning Census 2000
U. S., Department of Commerce v. U. S. House of Representatives 525 U. S. 316, 1999– the ruling decision for the Census of 2000 (Decided by the Supreme Court on January 25, 1999)

When the Republicans won control of Congress in 1994, one of their first aims was to prevent the Clinton Administration from using adjusted census figures for reappointment after 2000. They presumed the Clinton administration would tilt the count in favor of maintaining Democratic control of Congress. The Clinton administration recognized that an undercount of racial minorities, immigrants and central city residents was likely so they planned a Census of 2000 that would include an adjustment for net census undercount.

The Republican Congress refused to provide any funds for planning Census 2000 if there were any studies that might generate counts adjusted for net undercount. Speaker Gringrich filed a pre-emptive suit seeking a Supreme Court decision that would bar the use of adjusted census data for purposes of reapportionment. In a very split decision, the Supreme Court ruled against using adjusted census counts for congressional reapportionment but they did prevent the Census Bureau for studying undercount nor did they prohibited state legislatures from using adjusted data if they wished to do so.
The Census Bureau’s most complete estimate of the population of the United States for April 1, 2000 was 278 million. The actual census count as

announced by the Bureau on December 28, 2002 was 281.4 million – three million more than expected. Because the actual count was so large, the issue of net census undercount faded. However, there are at least five suits in the federal court system as of January, 2002, in which states or local governments asserted a constitutional violation because of census undercount. These plaintiffs sought to force the Bush Administration and the Census Bureau to adjust the census count for undercount. The Administration has refused to do so.


If the Census 2000 count of Utah had been 830 greater, Utah would have taken a congressional seat from North Carolina. Utah contended that the Census unconstitutionally erred, during its 2000 count, by counting all of North Carolina's overseas military personnel as a component of that state’s population while ignoring more then 10,000 Mormon missionaries- normally resident in Utah- who were overseas on temporary but long-term religious missions. This claim was rejected by a three-judge panel in U.S. District Court for the Ninth Circuit. The Supreme Court refused to hear the case in November 2001.

UTAH v. EVANS II, 536 U. S. 452, 2002.

Utah then raised a completely different issue in their effort to add one person to their congressional delegation. Utah challenged the use of "imputation" in the decennial census. That is, if census enumerators know that a dwelling unit is occupied but can contact no inhabitant, imputation may be used to generate population. Imputation added more than 1 million persons to the national 2000 Census count: Utah claim that imputation unfairly worked to the disadvantage of the State and, further, that imputation was unconstitutional in light of the Department of Commerce v. House of Representatives decision (1999).

The Bush Administration and the State of North Carolina claimed that imputation was different from sampling. The Supreme Court agreed and Utah did not gain its extra representative. Indeed, the Supreme Court specifically approved the use of “hot deck” imputation

The federal courts and the release of data from Census 2000 adjusted for net undercount
Because the census count in 2000 was about three million more than expected, there was controversy in the demographic community and in the Census Bureau about the estimation of net census undercount. Nevertheless, the Census Bureau prepared a variety of estimates of local areas population adjusted for undercount. Some professionals at the Bureau were reluctant to see them released because of their quality. Perhaps some

Republicans in the administration felt that the release of data adjusted for net census undercount might be used by Democratic state legislatures to carve out congressional districts favorable to their party. As a result, data adjusted for net undercount were not promptly released. In 2002, at least two suits were filed arguing that the national Freedom of Information Act called for the Census Bureau to release their estimates of census counts adjusted for undercount. Both federal judges ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. Late in 2002 or in 2003, the Census Bureau released these data and they are – or were – available on the Census Bureau website. So far as I know, they have not been used in redistricting.

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