The US Supreme Court decision Jan. 25 requiring an actual head count in the 2000 census means that several million residents - primarily minorities, the rural poor, and renters - will probably continue to be undercounted within the nation's population.
The 5-to-4 decision, written by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and backed by the court's conservatives, settled a dispute between the Clinton administration's Census Bureau and Republican members of Congress allied with a group of voters. The voters challenged the administration's plan to use statistical sampling methods to more accurately estimate how many people live in every community in the country.
The decision, coming early in the year, establishes a level of certainty in a process held hostage to political debate for years. It means taking the census will be more expensive and time consuming than if sampling had been used, analysts say.
And the mandate for a head count will place a premium on community-based efforts within historically undercounted populations to ensure everyone is counted.
Held every 10 years, the census is mandated to apportion the 435 seats in Congress. In addition, the numbers are used to draw local voting districts and to distribute $180 billion in federal grants and assistance.
Among those who oppose sampling, the court's decision has been hailed as one that upholds the intent of the Founding Fathers.
"The Clinton administration wanted in their scheme to be able to create about 30 million mythical people. They were going to decide what those people looked like and where those people lived," says Matthew Glavin of the Southeast Legal Foundation in Atlanta, which sued to block the use of sampling.
"If we start apportioning Congress based on virtual people then we are no longer a democracy but a virtual democracy," says Mr. Glavin. "The census goes to the heart of what we are as a nation."
Those on the other side of the case say the decision means that minorities and other undercounted residents will lose out on their fair share of government assistance and political clout.
"It is disturbing that we are again in a situation where the law is slow in using the most modern scientific techniques to get an accurate count," says Glenn Magpantay of the Asian-American Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York.
The Census Bureau and many statisticians and demographers have long argued that statistical sampling offers a proven scientific means to reduce the discrepancies in the population count among minorities.
But politics has clouded the issue. Many Republicans were worried that a statistically adjusted census would erode their political power by counting a segment of residents who tend to vote Democratic. For the same reason, many Democrats supported the use of sampling.
Some opponents of sampling argued no matter how reliable the methods, the injection of estimates into the process would create new opportunities for political manipulation of the raw data.
Census officials dispute this, saying the census staff is nonpartisan, professional, and ethical.
In the end, the issue came down to the majority's analysis of federal census law and whether it permits the use of sampling. The law as currently written is ambiguous, but two different panels of federal judges concluded the law does not authorize the Census Bureau to use sampling. The Supreme Court agreed.
THE justices did not address the broader issue of whether the Constitution's requirement of an "actual enumeration" is a head-count mandate.
The decision only applies to the census used to apportion Congress. It leaves open the possibility that the Census Bureau can use sampling techniques to enhance population counts to allocate federal grants and for drawing voting districts.
But it remains unclear whether Congress will allocate enough money to finance a second census, analysts say.