Obama to Nominate Sampling Expert to Head Census; Has Clashed With Republicans

April 2, 2009 - 10:42 AM
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Washington (AP) - President Barack Obama has chosen Robert M. Groves to be the next census director, turning to a professor who supports the use of statistical sampling and has clashed with Republicans to lead the high-stakes head count.
 
The White House will announce the selection of Groves later Thursday, according to a Commerce Department official who demanded anonymity because the individual was not authorized to speak before the official announcement.
 
Groves is a former Census Bureau associate director of statistical design, serving from 1990-92. He has spent decades researching ways to improve survey response rates. If confirmed by the Senate, he will take the helm less than a year before the decennial count, which has been beset by partisan bickering and will be used to apportion House seats and allocate billions in federal dollars.
 
When he was the bureau's associate director, Groves recommended that the 1990 census be statistically adjusted to make up for an undercount of roughly 5 million people, many of them minorities in dense urban areas who tend to vote for Democrats.
 
But in a fierce political dispute that prompted White House staff to call the bureau and express opposition, the Census Bureau was overruled by Republican Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher, who called the proposed statistical adjustment "political tampering."
 
The Supreme Court later ruled in 1999 that the use of statistical sampling cannot be used to apportion House seats, but indicated that adjustments could be made to the population count when redrawing congressional boundaries.
 
Current Commerce Secretary Gary Locke has said there are no current plans to use sampling for redistricting.
 
Groves, now a professor at the University of Michigan, would take over at a critical time. Census officials acknowledge that tens of millions of residents in dense urban areas -- about 14 percent of the U.S. population -- are at high risk of being missed due to language problems and a deepening economic crisis due to the financial meltdown that has displaced homeowners.
 
The government is devoting up to $250 million of the $1 billion in stimulus money for outreach, particularly for traditionally hard-to-count minorities.
 
But Hispanic and other groups are warning that traditional census outreach will not be enough, citing in particular rising anti-immigration sentiment after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.
 
Republicans, too, have been crying foul after the White House earlier this year indicated that it would take greater control over the census to address minority group concerns about Obama's initial nomination of GOP Sen. Judd Gregg as Commerce secretary.
 
Gregg later withdrew his nomination, partly citing disagreements over the handling of the census. The White House has since made clear that Locke will make the final decisions regarding the 2010 head count.
 
Democrats and Republicans for years have disagreed on whether the census should be based on a strict head count or cross-checked against a "statistical adjustment" to include hard-to-track people, particularly minorities, who might have been missed.
 
Meanwhile, the cost of the 2010 census is estimated to be $15 billion, the most expensive ever, and experts have long said the Census Bureau must do more to reduce a persistent undercount among minorities, as well as to modernize what is basically a paper mail-out operation that has been in place for decades.