Census Count: The Next Hanging Chad of Election Scandals?

Hard-core political numbers junkies sprouted a few extra gray hairs this week. The cause of their grief wasn’t the perpetually suspect electronic voting machines or mind-numbing campaign finance reports. It was a sedate and relatively obscure government agency with the capacity to set off a whole lot of political mischief.

The U.S. Census Bureau got a spanking this week from the Government Accountability Office for its mismanagement of a new, paperless system to count every man, woman and child living in the United States using handheld devices that are not working in early field tests [PDF report]. The next constitutionally mandated decennial census will be conducted in 2010, a mere two years away, at a cost of $11.5 billion making it the most expensive in the nation’s history.

ComputerWorld.com has the gory details of a $595 million federal contract gone awry, lots of finger-pointing, and a good old-fashioned technology FUBAR to keep things interesting.

So why should politicos care?

Census figures are used to redraw the congressional maps that are required to have the same number of people in each state’s U.S. House district. That’s why the odd sliver of eastern Boulder County resides in District 4 while the rest of the county is in District 2 and why the land mass of lightly populated District 3 is as large as some whole states.

But say, for instance, the 2010 census determines that a lot more people now live in District 2 than in neighboring District 4 since the last count. Therefore the map is redrawn to place the very blue city of Boulder in a very red Republican stronghold district. And voila! You’ve got a whole new — and a very competitive — political horse race in a district that’s been held by the GOP since 1972.

Whoever  is in control of the Colorado Legislature and governor’s mansion in 2012 will determine how the new district maps are drawn. The voting reform group FairVote describes redistricting as a “blood sport” that both parties exploit to gerrymander district maps to protect their partisan interests.

And blood sport is an apt illustration of Colorado’s last redistricting fiasco six years ago. The state Legislature failed to agree on new maps based on the 2000 census that created District 7, a fast-growing area just west of Denver. In the meantime the Republicans gained control of the statehouse in the 2002 midterm election and attempted to push through a GOP-friendly map.

Lawsuits ensued over the imbroglio and reached as high as the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case, remanding it back to a state court that drew the maps we have today.

In the grand scheme of things, Congress counts on state officials to draft maps that protect their party’s majority control in the House. Case in point, District 7 was gerrymandered to make it one of the few competitive seats in Colorado. That seat flipped in 2006 from the GOP when Republican Rep. Bob Beauprez retired to run for governor and Ed Perlmutter won, thus adding to the Democrats’ slim House majority.

Insider baseball to be sure, but it greatly affects the workings of the House — a partisan beast of epic proportion — that influences the nation’s agenda through its own unique constitutionally endowed role in revenue raising and calling for impeachment of the president or other civil officers of the federal government. The latter of which is on a lot of people’s minds these days.

And it all rests on the accuracy of the census data, which, by the looks of the GAO’s scathing report, could be the new hanging chad of electoral scandals.