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WELCOME TO THE 18TH CENTURY

The Supreme Court's two-track ruling on the census likely will bring chaos that will result in federal and state governments winding up with two population tallies, actual and adjusted, for use in different ways.

The court ruled 5-4 Monday that the Census Bureau must use the traditional mail and door-to-door tally to determine congressional apportionment, and can't supplement it with scientific estimates of the number of Americans missed by the census-takers. The ruling also maintains the expense of an exhaustive nose-counting effort.

The majority said that current federal census law demands an actual head-count, to determine how many congressional seats each state should get. But the justices left open the possibility that statistical "adjustments" could be used for such purposes as population-based allocation of federal funds and the drawing of political boundaries.

The men who wrote the Constitution in the 18th century couldn't have envisioned statistical sampling, but they were concerned about keeping political influence out of the census. That's obviously still a valid concern, and accounts for much of the opposition.

But the National Academy of Sciences and other reputable backers argue convincingly that the addition of scientific estimates to the actual head-count would help this country reach the ultimate goal, as accurate a census as possible.

The wrangling now will continue even closer to Census 2000, and the double standards for population are themselves likely to trigger more lawsuits, and will almost certainly trigger fierce congressional debates in what already has become a partisan issue.

Congress should short-circuit this ruling by changing the laws on which it is based. Unfortunately, that's unlikely to happen this time around because Congress is controlled by Republicans -- who oppose statistical sampling.

The Clinton administration, which champions use of estimates because the "missed" citizens are most likely to be Democratic-voting urban minorities, probably will use the ruling to call for two sets of census numbers in 2000, to be used in different ways.

Justice would have been better served if the court had tackled the tougher constitutional issue. Does the Constitution, which explicitly requires "actual enumeration" by "counting the whole number of persons in each state," ban the use of modern scientific sampling?

By ruling on the lower level of federal laws, the justices were not required to tackle the deeper constitutional question. That's unfortunate.

The court should have issued a decision that really counted -- and one that made sure as many Americans as possible were enrolled in this democracy.

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