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THE CENSUS Bureau is refining its figures, but the more exact head count still leaves unchanged the larger picture of an enormous nation with more people than a decade ago -- just a hair under 250 million -- and more of those people than before living in the South and West.

Some of that population shift to the Sun Belt comes from interstate migration, especially from the Northeast and Midwest. But some also comes from immigration.

The more refined figures justify the efforts of New York officials in protesting what they considered an undercount in the initial April census taking. That's because the new figures boost New York's population by 417,000 to a total 18,044,505, with the revision accounting for most of the gain in population over the last decade.

New York officials plan to press for what they consider more exact counts before the Census Bureau settles on final figures in July. And they should. But the chances for new large gains aren't great.

The census results confirm that California is the colossus state, with nearly 30 million people -- 11 million more than second-place New York.

With the shift of people goes a shift of political power. In the next election, California will elect 52 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, a gain of seven. New York will elect 31, a loss of three.

Two years from now California, Texas and Florida, three big gainers in population and political power, will together control 111 (41 percent) of the 270 Electoral College votes required to elect a president.

That's reason enough for some observers to see Republicans gaining from the census. These are relatively conservatives states. In recent years they have favored GOP candidates for president (California since 1968, Florida and Texas since 1980).

That also explains why lots of presidential and vice presidential candidates, especially Republicans, have come from these states.

Although these population figures are not final, they will be used by state legislatures to redraw the boundaries for seats in Congress and their own state legislatures. New York, losing three congressional seats, could see nasty fights, both in the reapportionment process and the campaigns that will follow. This could happen in our own region, which may lose one of its five seats.

In such a competitive situation, the political temptations to gerrymander for partisan advantage -- that is, draw even wildly distorted district boundaries in order to favor candidates of your own party in future elections -- are nearly irresistible.

Consequently, realistic checks and balances power are necessary. New Yorkers assured themselves of getting them last November when they approved a Democratic majority in the Assembly and a Republican majority in the Senate.

Neither political party can totally control the reapportionment process. They will have to compromise, and that is good for the residents of a state adjusting to its loss in national power wrought by the 1990 census.

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