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Census Officials: Delay Necessary For Accurate Population Count

Apr 28, 2020

The U.S. Census Bureau is in need of more time to get the results of the 2020 count due to the coronavirus pandemic. The Bureau is asking Congress for an additional 120 days to deliver final numbers.

Wilbur Ross, U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary, and Steven Dillingham, U.S. Census Bureau Director, said in the statement that though the Bureau is still collecting data online, as well as via phone and mail, they have temporarily suspended field data collection.

They said the adjustments are necessary to protect people’s health and safety and to ensure a complete and accurate count of all communities.

The Bureau has created a revised timeline, including delivering apportionment counts to the President by April 30, 2021, and redistricting data to states by July 31, 2021.

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“The politics of all this are that we are in the middle of a national pandemic related to the coronavirus,” said Joshua Scacco, Assistant Professor of Political Communication in the Department of Communication for the University of South Florida. “What that means is right now it is much harder for the U.S. Census Bureau to contact people.”

The Census is conducted every ten years with the goal of calculating the population of every state and territory in the U.S.

The results are used for determining how much money each state gets for vital services, the number of representatives in the U.S. House, and setting district lines.

While extending the deadlines can mean more accurate information, it may also cause issues for elections, particularly when it comes to the timing of redistricting.

“If population data is not in place by that point [when filing deadlines for election candidates take place] and new maps aren't drawn, the old maps are in place,” said Scacco. “So in terms of elections, elections still go on. What that means, though, is that the district populations that data is based on are just older.”

Districts are supposed to be designed to be of relatively equal size when it comes to population and prevent gerrymandering from occurring. Gerrymandering is where districts are drawn up in order to skew towards a particular party line.

“To hold elections next year (in) New Jersey and Pennsylvania, it will potentially be tricky in terms of how they go about running their elections,” said Scacco. “Whether they will have the time to redraw maps, most likely filing deadlines will have already passed by then. So those states will probably be using old maps.”

Billions of dollars in federal funds are allocated to communities, and government facilities such as hospitals, fire departments, schools, and road construction and maintenance are funded through the data collected by the census. The funding for government programs like SNAP and Medicaid are distributed this way as well.

States such as Florida that have grown greatly in the last ten years will likely benefit from the census by receiving federal resources they need to keep up with that booming population.

A study by George Washington University showed Florida received $44 billion in federal funding in 2016 because of census data.

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“Making sure that support for communities is accurate based on population and different areas, urban, rural, or suburban will have different needs,” said Scacco. “The population numbers need to be accurate to reflect what those needs are. So it helps to match the need of a community with what is available in terms of public financing and public funds flowing back into this community. So in many ways, it's also about efficiency and allocation of federal dollars in terms of tax money.”

Since this is the first time the census has been conducted online, the Bureau is able to keep an ongoing update of the response rates across the country for people to view. The data can be filtered by state, county, and congressional district.

In these numbers, Florida is ranked 30th out of the places responding with a 51.2% response rate. Among Florida’s counties, Sarasota ranks 10th, Hillsborough County ranks 20th, and Pinellas 30th.

“Those counties, in particular, have response rates well above the Florida average range,” said Scacco. “But what that also means is that not everyone has been reached yet. And so the populations that will be most difficult to reach, underrepresented populations, urban populations, and in particular those subgroups, tend to skew towards the Democratic Party.”

In order to accurately count people in those urban areas, the Census normally conducts door-to-door surveys. Everyone, even those who are living in college dorms, military barracks, shelters, RV parks, and hotels are counted.

“The larger kind of issue that the Census Bureau will be most concerned about right now is systematic undercounting of people,” said Scacco. “And so individuals that should be counted, but are not.”

Though the Bureau has set dates to restart field collecting in the summer, with coronavirus policies, there is a possibility they still may not be able to reach people then.

Scacco encourages people who have the means of filling out the census to do so, so that census workers going door-to-door only have to go where they are absolutely needed.

“Politically, it's in everyone's interest for the count to be as accurate as possible,” said Scacco.

People who have not filled out the 2020 Census yet can do so online, by phone or mail.

The Census Bureau is also still looking for people to collect data starting again this summer.