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History, Myth Making, and Statistics: A Short Story about the Reapportionment of Congress and the 1990 Census

  • Margo Anderson (a1) and Stephen E. Fienberg (a2)

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Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness …. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to fulfil it.

—George Santayana, 1905-06

Those who are familiar with the “equal proportions” formula used to reapportion the U.S. House of Representatives each decade are aware how sensitive it is to small changes in states' population data. In 1990, this sensitivity took on new significance as statisticians and politicians debated the merits of adjusting the decennial census data to correct for the differential undercount. The “official” apportionment results from the 1990 Census were published in December 1990, and the reapportionment of Congressional seats among the states proceeded on the basis of those data. Adjusted census results were released in July 1991. These data would have changed the reapportionment of Congress and shifted two seats in the House: one each from the states of Wisconsin and Pennsylvania to the states of California and Arizona.

Adding to the complexity of the debates about which set of data to use, and in the midst of the ensuing litigation between New York City and the U.S. Department of Commerce, the Census Bureau discovered a computer coding error in the adjusted data estimates and issued “revised adjusted data” in January 1992.

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References

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Anderson, Margo, and Fienberg, Stephen E. 1999. Who Counts? The Politics of Census Taking in Contemporary America. New York: Russell Sage.
Brown, Lawrence D., Eaton, Morris L., Freedman, David A., Klein, Stephen P., Olshen, Richard A., Wachter, Kenneth W., Wells, Martin T., and Ylvisaker, Donald. 1999. “Statistical Controversies in Census 2000.” Jurimetrics 39:347–75.
Days, Drew, et al. 1995. “Brief for the Federal Petitioners.” Wisconsin v. City of New York, 517 US 1.
Freedman, David, and Wachter, Kenneth W. 1996. “Planning for the Census in the Year 2000.” Technical Report No. 455. Berkeley: University of California, Berkeley.
Hogan, Howard. 1993. “The 1990 Post-Enumeration Survey: Operations and Results.” Journal of the American Statistical Association 88:1047–60.
Miller, Dan. 1998. “Playing Politics with the Census.” The Washington Post, June 26, A27.
Schirm, Allan. 1991. “The Effects of Census Undercount Adjustment on Congressional Apportionment.” Journal of the American Statistical Association 86:526–41.
Wachter, Kenneth, and Freedman, David. 1996. Testimony on Plans for Census 2000. House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight, February 29.
“Will You be Counted in 2000? Census Plans to ‘Sample’ May Lead to Big Errors.” 1998. Investor's Business Daily, July 8, 1, 32.

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History, Myth Making, and Statistics: A Short Story about the Reapportionment of Congress and the 1990 Census

  • Margo Anderson (a1) and Stephen E. Fienberg (a2)

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