How Do You Count the Crowd at Inauguration?

Want to know how many folks are expected for the inauguration? Well, it depends on whom you ask. Washington D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty predicts at least 3 million people, but can anyone provide a definitive crowd estimate for the big day? The Root Explainer to the rescue...

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Want to know how many folks are expected for the inauguration on Jan. 20, 2009? Well, it depends on whom you ask.

Washington D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty predicts at least 3 million people could be crammed onto the National Mall for the swearing-in ceremony. Law enforcement agencies expects about 1 million folks will witness the nation's first African-American president take his oath of office. But can anyone provide a definitive crowd estimate for the big day?

No.

Even if they did know, they couldn't say. The National Park Service manages the National Mall, the location for the swearing-in ceremony. The crowd for President-elect Barack Obama's inaugural is expected to match the 1.5 million spectators who watched Lyndon B. Johnson take the presidential oath of office in 1965, but the NPS is restricted from speculating any further.

The agency is prohibited from making pre- or post-event estimates. That prohibition dates back to 1995 with the controversy over attendance at the Million Man March.  NPS figures about 400,000 people attended the march. But a competing estimate from Boston University professor Farouk El-Baz put the figure at 837,214, with a 20 percent margin of error.

The furor over the disparity between the two counts led Congress to forbid NPS from using taxpayer money to make estimates of any event. Since then, D.C. council member Kwame R. Brown has issued a statement calling for a crowd count to be made for history's sake.

To reach his tally of the Million Man March, El-Baz used techniques he developed as the director of the university's Center for Remote Sensing to analyze event photographs supplied by NPS. Some of his methods were sophisticated, and others were mundane.  Using a scaled, multispectral image he calculated the crowd's density by estimating the amount of people populating each square meter of the event.

Nowadays, though, officials avoid controversy by avoiding numbers altogether. The NPS was legally bound to duck the figure question, but when The Root Explainer asked the Secret Service, they said crowd estimates were not considered a priority in preparation for the big day.

Afi-Odelia E. Scruggs is an Ohio-based writer.

The Root Explainer thanks David Barna of National Park Service and Malcolm Wiley of the Secret Service.

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