Lombardo: Sampling a useful political tool

Absent from the circus-like atmosphere surrounding President Barack Obama's attempts to appoint a commerce secretary was any sense of urgency, despite the position's importance.

The public seemed content with the reality that the position had been cursed in a manner akin to the Defense Against the Dark Arts position at Hogwarts. Yet it should be known that this apathy was misplaced, as the Commerce Department has an almost unparalleled ability to shape the political landscape.

This power stems from its role as overseer of the Census Bureau, which is responsible for counting Americans every 10 years. These numbers determine how seats are allotted to each state for the House of Representatives, impact the way districts are drawn up within states and affect where federal funds based on population are allocated.

At first glance it wouldn't seem to matter who runs this operation, as counting is pretty straight forward, but in reality there are two contrasting approaches to the issue and a wide range of commitments to the process.

The current procedure involves sending out 140,000 census workers to hit the streets to confirm over 145 million addresses, which are then sent via census form in early 2010 and returned to the Bureau at a rate of two to one. Hundreds of thousands of workers are subsequently deployed to complete the picture by recording the nonresponsive households.

The problem with this process is that it is incomplete and undercounts certain segments of society. This includes legal and illegal immigrants who are either afraid of authorities or struggle with a language barrier, minorities in urban areas that workers simply don't reach and people without a permanent address.

A more accurate picture could be reached by employing statistical sampling, which is cheaper, but doesn't comply with the Constitution's mandate of an actual count for determining representation. It was therefore deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, though the court did condone utilizing sampling for calculating the allocation of federal aid and the construction of districts.

There is a clear partisan divide on the issue, with Republicans vehemently opposing any change of procedure since sampling would represent a tremendous coup for Democrats because it would reverse the trend of undercounting traditionally Democratic voters.

The nomination of Republican Sen. Judd Gregg as commerce secretary could have been significant for the Republicans, but in the aftermath of his withdrawal it appears that President Obama had never planned to cede control of the Census Bureau.

The White House denied this politicizing of the process, yet in the wake of the appointment of Gary Locke as commerce secretary and the nomination of a statistical sampling expert to head the Census Bureau, it appears as if the Obama administration wants to revolutionize the counting process.

There have been objections to amending this process in the past; for example, when it originally counted all "free" persons and "three fifths of all other persons," but time corrected this shortcoming.

Now the time has come when we need to embrace sampling as a tool. If it is used in conjunction with a head count and a renewed dedication that was lacking during the Bush administration, it will create a more accurate census. In the long-run, a Constitutional amendment will be needed, but for now the census seems to be on the right track.

Dave Lombardo is a senior poli-sci major who would have been in Hufflepuff.