Washington • Rep. Rob Bishop introduced legislation this week that would require the Census Bureau to start counting Americans living overseas, noting that thousands of Utahns aren’t included in the once-a-decade effort because they’re serving Mormon missions abroad.
The Utah Republican also wants to create a system where expatriates can vote in U.S. elections at their closest American embassy.
A government study in 2004 found that efforts to count all Americans abroad not only would be costly but could be impossible.
Bishop says there are ways to make it happen and that it’s important to ensure an accurate count. His bill would mandate the change in the 2030 census as it’s too late in the lead-up to the 2020 count.
“Currently, the Census Bureau doesn’t count Americans living overseas at the time of the decennial census unless they are affiliated with the federal government,” Bishop said in unveiling his legislation. “This policy helps states that have lots of residents overseas with the military or other federal government operations, and it hurts those states that have lots of residents who are not affiliated with the federal government.”
Utah had sued the Commerce Department, which houses the Census Bureau, after the 2000 census when the state missed earning another congressional seat by a few hundred residents. The state had argued that Mormon missionaries serving temporary assignments outside the country should have been counted, but the Supreme Court eventually rejected the claim.
Bishop notes that census results play into not only congressional redistricting but also government funding for roads, schools, health care and education.
The Utah congressman, still stinging from the fact missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from Utah serving abroad aren’t counted, said it’s time for the Census Bureau to work with other government agencies to find and include Americans who are now left out.
“We have a chance to make a change that will help real people, and we should do it,” Bishop said.
A previous attempt to test the possibility of counting Americans outside the United States found several challenges and a small return rate on responses.
The Census Bureau and the Government Accountability Office in 2004 attempted to survey Americans living in France, Kuwait and Mexico, but “participation was poor” and only 5,390 questionnaires were returned, at a cost of $1,450 for each response. The annual domestic census costs about $56 per household.
“Ensuring a smooth overseas count could also stretch the bureau’s resources,” the GAO said in a report. “For example, at each test site the bureau encountered various challenges that needed to be resolved such as French privacy laws.”
“The bureau has done some initial research on alternatives, but all require more extensive review,” the GAO added. “Given that the bureau already faces the difficult task of securing a successful stateside count in 2010, having to simultaneously count Americans abroad would only add to the challenges facing the bureau.”