Editorial: Challenging the numbers

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Given the research and detailed documentation required to contest a Census count, you might wonder whether it’s worthwhile for Rowan County and China Grove to go through a challenge that involves a relatively small number of disputed residences or people.
The answer is yes — for several reasons.
With the state Legislature in the midst of redistricting based on the 2010 count, Rowan Countians are well aware of how Census results can affect the drawing of boundaries for congressional districts as well as N.C. House and Senate seats. Accurate demographic information is crucial in apportioning representation — and, as we’re currently witnessing, shaping the political landscape for a decade to come. Numbers equate to votes and representation.
For counties and municipalities, the numbers also directly impact finances and planning for future growth. State and federal funding is often allocated according to population, and some grants may be linked to population threshholds. Local governments also need accurate headcounts and precise residential maps to help plan for future service needs, such as schools, police and fire protection, roads and water and sewer service. Having precise data now enhances the accuracy of growth projections for the future. The reverse is also true: Given that it will be 10 years before another Census is conducted, a small error now could compound into a larger distortion over the years if not corrected.
No less important, demographics are a key consideration when retail businesses are looking to open new branches or expand old ones.
That’s why local governments are smart to diligently check new Census counts — and should challenge data that don’t add up. For Rowan, the questionable numbers are 1,500 houses that may either have been omitted or placed in the wrong counting area; for China Grove, it’s a suspected undercount of 800-900 residents — a significant amount for a small town.
While some challenges are successful, overall the Census has proved to be remarkably accurate for such a massive statistical undertaking. Following the 2000 count, potential problems were identified for 1,180 out of 39,000 jurisdictions — less than 3 percent of all governmental jurisdictions across the nation. The final 2000 corrections resulted in a net gain in population of about 2,700 people. That represented about 1/1000th of a percent of the U.S. population at that time — which sounds pretty inconsequential, unless your jurisdiction has the bad data.