Census, Congress Concerned About Census Sampling Mailing

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As Census enumerators began delivering questionnaires to rural households on Friday, some homes may receive a solicitous mailing from a group that opposes the U.S. Census Bureau's statistical sampling plan in their mail boxes that may be misleading, according to some.

The mailing, from the Southeastern Legal Foundation, Atlanta, a conservative public policy group that is one of the Census Bureau's harshest critics, contains an envelop that says "IMPORTANT 2000 CENSUS MATERIALS ENCLOSED." Inside, however, is a letter from foundation president Matthew J. Glavin soliciting money for the group's campaign against the Census Bureau and its sampling plans.

Despite a Supreme Court ruling against statistical sampling in the 2000 census to apportion U.S. House seats last year, the Census is still planning to use a sampling program to augment things such as redistricting and federal funding.

The mailing, which was sent to 50,000 conservative households in December and another 200,000 late last month, should end by the time most people receive the census forms-some time after March 13-15 , when the questionnaires are being mailed to most Americans.

Reps on the House Government Reform census subcommittee -including ranking Democrat Carolyn B. Maloney (D-NY) and Dan Miller (R-FL) contended that the mailing is misleading and possibly illegal.

On March 2, Maloney asked the postmaster general to investigate what she said in a statement "seems to be a clear violation of federal law" against mailings that too closely resemble government documents.

It may or may not be. President Clinton signed the Deceptive Mail Prevention and Enforcement Act, S. 335, into law in December -- which besides making it illegal to mislead consumers in sweepstakes mailings -- also makes it illegal for marketers or fund-raisers to send any mailing that misrepresents any Federal government agency. Most provisions of this bill will take effect in April, 120 days after the bill was signed into law.

If the mailing is deceptive, "[they] will have to take it out of the mail stream before the bill takes effect in April," said Kirk Walder, an investigator with the permanent subcommittee on investigations, which sponsored the bill.

Glavin said he has no intention of stopping the mailing. "I don't think what's on there would suggest there is a census form," he said. "We put things on the envelope to urge people to open them -- that's the whole point of mail."

Glavin also suggested that Maloney called for the postal service investigation as revenge because he would not co-sign a letter with her urging Texas Gov. George W. Bush to declare whether he would allow census numbers from a statistical sample to be made public if he is elected president. Glavin and Maloney separately have urged Bush to announce what he would do, even though they have opposing positions on the sampling issue. Maloney favors sampling and Glavin opposes it.

Census Bureau officials said they are concerned about any private mailing that resembles a census envelope, especially in the midst of the count. They also confirmed that there have been look-a-like mailings during previous counts by various groups, but that the Glavin mailing is the first allegedly deceptive one they have heard about for the 2000 Census. The government envelope containing census forms includes a Department of Commerce return address and a Census 2000 logo as well as the phrase: "U.S. Census form enclosed. Your response required by law."

The Census is especially concerned because late last month the agency accidentally misaddressed 115 million letters designed to motivate American households into promptly filling out and sending back their census questionnaires.

These letters -- which have tacked on an extra digit to the beginning number of each street address - have been mailed out and will be sent to the proper addresses. But Census Bureau officials have admitted that they are concerned that the snafu may cause some mailers to not open their envelopes.

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