Ignoring undercount hurts minorities

PERHAPS IT STARTED with the U.S. Constitution, when slaves were counted as three-fifths of an American.

Years of struggle put matters right. Yet, minorities still face policies and decisions that seem to diminish their standing.


Florida's failed election system prevented an alarming number of African-Americans from voting.

U.S. Civil Rights Commission chairwoman Mary Frances Berry, after hearings in Florida, lamented a lack of urgency to reform a system that may have discriminated against black voters.


Now comes the decennial census -- perhaps even more important because its results will shape public policy for a decade. A universally acknowledged undercount left out about 3 million Americans, many of them blacks and Latinos. Both ethnic groups tend to vote Democratic.

So, this Republican administration's decision not to include that 3 million in the count inevitably looks political. The fewer the better seems to be its attitude -- particularly in congressional districts where Republicans face difficult re-election tests.

The difficulty of reaching minorities might have been overcome using statistical sampling, but that was rejected by the Bush administration. While thought to be less precise than a head count, sampling is considered a good way of not missing anyone. It can hardly be argued that sampling would produce a less accurate count than the first, which missed 3 million Americans. The other reasons cited for stopping the count were reminiscent of those given for denying a recount of votes in Florida: too much chance for error; too time-consuming.

How unfortunate. These events -- the undervote and the undercount -- suggest that Mr. Bush could have a difficult time proving he deserves more support from minority Americans. African-Americans must now accept a census that will reduce their ability to win help from the federal government and, possibly, to elect African-Americans to Congress -- where they are grossly underrepresented -- and other offices.

The nation's motto is "E pluribus unum": out of many, one. This administration is headed for quite a different mantra: "Don't count the votes. Don't count the people."