Americans are reaching the final few hours to respond to the 2020 Census. Some officials tracking the responses in Idaho are worried about the impact of the new deadline.
The Supreme Court issued an emergency ruling Tuesday for the Census Bureau to stop operations immediately instead of continuing through the end of October. The window for Idahoans to be included in the official once-a-decade count closes at 3:59 a.m. Mountain Standard Time Friday morning, or at the stroke of midnight in Hawaii.
“I think ending early will certainly hurt us,” said Kim Keeley, who manages Teton County’s Complete Count Committee. The committees are the local groups charged with efforts to encourage participation in the census for their communities, whether it’s at the county level or for specific demographics within the state.
Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and members of the Trump administration argued to the Supreme Court that continuing the census until the end of the month would possibly prevent the full numbers from being reported to President Trump before the end of the year. Seven justices agreed in the brief decision, while Sonia Sotomayor dissented to write that the effects of an incomplete count are “avoidable and intolerable.”
Census outreach efforts have largely been done in two phases: a self-response available online and over the phone, and the door-to-door enumeration done by official Census Bureau workers over the last two months. The Census Bureau stated Wednesday that more than 99.9% of housing units “have been accounted for” by the combined outreach efforts.
The Idaho Latinx 2020 Complete Count Committee was reaching out to partners across the state Wednesday to get a final digital message out about the census. Committee spokesman Antonio Hernandez said that he knows it takes multiple efforts to get people who hadn’t initially responded to the census to fill out the forms. He was concerned that the shorter timeline would affect the number of responses.
“We know that enumeration has been continuing, but the ongoing pandemic has affected the quality and accuracy of... in-person follow-ups,” Hernandez said.
The census numbers that were collected this year will have wide-ranging impacts on the nation. Census counts determine how seats in the U.S. House of Representatives are assigned to each state. At the local level, the population numbers help determine funding for everything from school lunch programs to road improvements and Medicaid. George Washington University estimated that Idaho received $3.6 billion in 2016 through dozens of federal programs tied to census data.
Idaho’s rural counties had been facing the largest challenges in responding to the census. While Idaho as a whole had roughly 70% of people self-report details for the Census this year, less than half of residents in Clark, Fremont and Teton counties had done so.
Keeley said that more than half of Teton residents had their mail sent to P.O. boxes instead of their home, which limited the effectiveness of the census’ early mail information. Ad campaigns and a handful of in-person appearances have been used over the last few months but Keeley didn’t have numbers for how effective they had been.
“If only 60% of our population is counted, and there’s an average of 90% counted in the rest of the state, we’re going to receive a lot less federal funding,” Keeley said.
Not all of the local counts are facing the same concerns over the shortened deadline. Idaho Falls and Bonneville County have seen a 2% increase in their census reporting from the 2010 version. Three of the four city census tracts that had been lagging behind last decade’s response rate earlier this year have since gotten up to previous levels.
Brad Cramer, who lead the Idaho Falls Complete Count Committee, said the city has focused its efforts on completing census outreach by the beginning of October to meet the deadline for a $6,000 grant they received from the National League of Cities. The city had dropped plans to hold in-person programs with census workers in attendance to focus on an online campaign targeted at specific hard-to-reach demographics and neighborhoods.
“We’ve had to be a lot more reliant on messaging at this stage. When you can have a device ready and a census worker there to help, it’s a lot less intimidating for folks who might not be sure how to take it online,” Cramer said.
Cramer said that while the coronavirus had limited some of the planned events to reach out about the Census, the city was satisfied with how the outreach efforts had improved the self-response rate.
Another important census case may also see a Supreme Court ruling soon. The Department of Justice has appealed a case that would allow undocumented immigrants to be excluded from the population count when it comes to determining seats in the House of Representatives.
Responses to the 2020 Census can still be submitted online at my2020census.gov, over the phone in more than a dozen languages, or through with mail responses that are postmarked before Oct. 15.