Census to come knocking in Utah: Can it finish fair count with shortened deadline?

(Photo courtesy of U.S. Census Bureau) The Census Bureau launched Tuesday knocking on doors ot Utahns who have yet to respond to the once-every-decade count.

The Census Bureau has launched its six-week sprint in Utah to knock on the doors of hundreds of thousands of people who have yet to respond to its once-every-decade count before the Trump administration says it must stop on Sept. 30.

That came as Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., called for a probe into why the administration is ending the count a month early. Democrats argue it is for GOP political gain to undercount tough-to-enumerate areas with immigrants or low-income people more likely to be Democrats. The Census Bureau is saying it wants to count everyone but needs some assistance.

“We need everybody’s help to make sure everyone is counted,” said Cathy Lacy, regional director of the Census Bureau for 12 Western states including Utah.

To date, only 67.5% of Utahn households responded to the Census by internet, phone or paper questionnaires — leaving a third of them to be counted in the state of about 3 million residents.

“If we do come to your door, then it’s less than 10 minutes to make sure that you’re counted for the next decade,” Lacy said Tuesday.

She noted that 2,300 Census workers knocking on doors in Utah will take steps to protect themselves and the people they visit from COVID-19 — and to clearly identify themselves as government workers.

“We’re pretty easy to spot,” Lacy said, noting all Census enumerators will wear a mask and photo ID, and will carry a bag that says “2020 Census.” They will also be carrying a handheld electronic device to enter responses.

(Andrew Harnik | AP file photo) Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham wears a mask with the words "2020 Census" as he arrives to testify before a House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing on the 2020 Census​ on Capitol Hill on July 29, 2020, in Washington.

“We will be keeping social distancing. So, when we knock on the door, we will back up 6 feet,” she said.

Like in other places nationally, Lacy said the Census Bureau is facing an extra challenge here because many of its workers decided not to participate in knocking on doors for fear of catching the coronavirus.

“Some people don’t want to go out into the field because of COVID-19,” she said. “So, we have continued to hire for our nonresponse follow-up operation.”

The bureau also is offering extra financial incentives for workers willing to put in extra hours, and for those who are able to finish more questionnaires.

She said one side effect of COVID-19 may actually help Census workers. “We have kind of a captive audience because more people are working at home. That means our window of productive hours should actually increase.”

Workers who are unable to find anyone when they knock will leave instructions and personal codes that could allow residents to go online to respond now.

“It’s not too late to self-respond” and avoid a knock on the door, Lacy said.

The official launch of door-knocking on Tuesday — after months of delay because of the pandemic — comes amid plenty of controversy about whether rushing now will produce a full and complete count.

The bureau had planned to conduct the count from Tuesday through Oct. 31 but said last month it would end the count on Sept. 30 to comply with a statutory deadline to complete all its work by Dec. 31.

As she called Tuesday for an investigation into that decision, Shaheen said, “I believe that this deviation in schedule is driven not by expert opinions of career Census Bureau employees but by external pressure from the White House and the Department of Commerce for perceived political gain.”

Still, Lacy said she is confident the Census will obtain a full count in Utah and the nation.

In the last census, “It took us six weeks to complete our nonresponse follow-up operation. We have approximately six weeks [now] to get this done. So we feel pretty confident that we are going to be able to do that,” she said.

For people who never respond to the census, the bureau takes several steps to try to estimate them in official counts.

“We’re going to talk to neighbors to see if we can get a population count,” Lacy said. The Census Bureau also uses such things as Social Security and Internal Revenue Service data to help provide estimates.

“We still have the same quality standards we have had in past censuses, even with finishing it on Sept. 30,” Lacy said. “We won’t be cutting corners in order to meet that deadline.”

Lacy gives three reasons why people should respond to the census: “It comes down to power, knowledge and money.”

She said power results from the political representation awarded according to counts. The census also provides data and knowledge to help plan communities.

“And billions of federal dollars are based on that once-every-decade count,” she said. “So, this is the gift that keeps on giving.”