Salt Lake County sees record-breaking census participation, while U.S. falls behind 2010 turnout

Census workers focused on undercounted communities, including Latinos, kids, refugees and people with disabilities.

(Matt Rourke | AP file photo) This March 19, 2020, file photo, shows an envelope containing a 2020 census letter mailed to a U.S. resident. Salt Lake County says participation was up in the once-a-decade head counting.

Despite all the snafus and obstacles that 2020 brought, Salt Lake County staff rallied to boost participation in the U.S. Census and their efforts paid off.

At a County Council meeting Tuesday, Mayor Jenny Wilson reported a 74.3% turnout rate in the county, compared to 71.6% during the last census in 2010. Statewide, Utah saw 71% participation compared to 68.6% 10 years ago.

Census participation matters because it determines the population numbers used for political redistricting in the state as well as the number of seats Utah holds in the U.S. House of Representatives. (The state population is not enough to secure a fifth House seat.)

Importantly, the federal government distributes funds based on population counts reported from the census as well.

“We know we want a fair count, but we also want to receive every federal dollar [that’s] our fair share,” Wilson said. “We also know that every 10 years, the better our information, the better our planning. So for so many reasons, we needed to do well.”

Meanwhile, nationwide numbers are down. The country’s census participation was 67% this year, down a whopping 7 percentage points compared to 2010.

The U.S. Census Bureau maintains a database of all the nation’s households receiving mail and determines participation rates based on how many of those households respond.

Both Salt Lake County and the nation faced formidable challenges when counting the population this year, with the pandemic bringing the biggest hurdle. The Trump administration also revised the count deadline numerous times, tried to introduce a citizenship question that deterred Hispanic and Latino communities, and, for the first time, the U.S. Census Bureau moved the survey online.

“Census 2020, for those who weren’t following, was bananas,” Marti Woolford with the mayor’s office for new Americans told the County Council.

The county began its outreach efforts in 2018 with a total budget of $380,000, including staff salaries. Those workers made their focus historically undercounted communities, including children under 5 years old, Hispanics and Latinos, older adults, people with disabilities, refugees, renters and millennials, Woolford said.

“We knew we couldn’t reach the communities we wanted to reach all by ourselves,” she said. “Where a lot of the focus ended up going [was] creating a robust grassroots campaign.”

The county partnered with churches, nonprofits, businesses and the Spanish-language television station Univision to spread their message about the importance of participating in the nationwide population count.

“It was a wild, wild two years,” Woolford said. “But the last [year] was definitely the most interesting project I’ve worked on.”

Table of city census participation provided by Salt Lake County.