by New York Times, April 18, 2006

The Census Bureau tends to stamp its feet and shake its head no when asked to do things differently than it has in the past. It has been running true to form since late last year, when Congress ordered it to study the common-sense idea of counting inmates at their homes rather than at prison.

Prison inmates are denied the vote in all but two states, but are nonetheless counted as “residents” of prisons when the state legislatures draw up election districts based on the census data. This inflates the political power of prison districts, which are often in rural areas of the states, while diminishing the voting strength of the urban districts where the inmates actually live. It also causes some prison districts to collect more than a fair share of federal dollars earmarked for the poor.

Asked by Congress to consider remedies for this problem, the bureau responded with an obtuse and evasive report that supports the bad old status quo. The report sets up a straw man by suggesting that the desired change might require the costly and invasive procedure of interviewing every inmate. All that is really necessary is to treat inmates like everyone else. That means giving them questionnaires that ask, among other things, for their home addresses and interviewing them only when a form is not returned or when some other problem occurs.

The bureau could also ask corrections officials to begin collecting the information it needs. As was suggested recently by the Brennan Center for Justice, such a request would probably have the byproduct of improved record keeping among state corrections bureaus.

Congress should keep hounding the bureau until it stops stonewalling and fixes what is clearly a flaw in the census collection process.

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