Census Bureau still behind in counting rural areas

WASHINGTON - The Census Bureau has restarted efforts to count people in rural areas of the country amid renewed fears that they may not get everyone.


The agency initially planned to drop off census questionnaires at the door of every rural household without traditional mail service. But it pulled back nearly all active counting operations in March to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.


That worries people in states where efforts to count everyone could fall short. In Montana, for example, that may mean losing out on a second congressional seat. Again.


"There is a serious concern that that will hurt us, knowing that we were only expected to receive that seat by about 4,000 to 5,000 people," said Dan Stusek, a Republican member of the state's redistricting commission.


Montana lost a congressional seat in 1990, but projections from Election Data Services estimate that the state may regain the seat following this year's census.


That puts high stakes on the counting efforts of rural households in Montana and other states across the country, as well as Native American reservations and places struck by natural disasters, such as Puerto Rico. Seventeen states are slated to gain or lose a congressional seat after this year's count, according to an EDS analysis, with margins as slim as 3,000 people.


After the pandemic led the Census Bureau to suspend most of its active counting operations, the agency relied on people to respond on their own online, by mail or over the phone - efforts that did not include rural areas until recently.


The Census Bureau said in a statement Thursday that it had completed more than 96 percent of the questionnaire drop-off process in rural areas. It next plans to soft launch, in the middle of July, door-to-door counting efforts to follow up with people who have not responded. That effort has been postponed for the past two months due to the pandemic.


The agency said it plans to start in-person counting efforts in remote parts of Alaska and Maine this week. It also has sped the processing of paper questionnaires after being slowed down by efforts to have employees comply with social distancing requirements.


"We are rapidly working down the backlog of paper questionnaires that have been received at our processing centers, and we will ensure all paper questionnaires are processed in time to deliver the apportionment counts," the Census Bureau said in its statement.


While the response rate is at 61.5 percent nationally, it lags behind in many rural areas, dragging down overall state figures. Montana stands at 55.1 percent, Alaska at 47.1 percent and Puerto Rico at 20.3 percent. The Census Bureau planned to count all of Puerto Rico through questionnaire drop-off because of lingering devastation from the 2017 hurricanes.


The Navajo Nation reservation - which spans Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and a touch of Colorado - has a 1.6 percent response rate. The coronavirus pandemic has hit the tribe particularly hard, prompting the local census office there to be the agency's last in the nation to reopen.


Previous census efforts have had an especially tough time counting people who live on reservations. In 2010, the agency missed nearly 5 percent of the Native American population on reservations nationwide, larger than the undercount of African Americans or Latino Americans.


Margo J. Anderson, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee history and urban studies professor who has written several books about the census, said that despite the 61 percent national response rate, more needs to be done.


"Essentially, the internet and mail and phone modes started on time and, for all intents and purposes, look pretty successful," Anderson said. "The in-person enumerations were designed for traditionally hard-to-count areas including areas that have been undercounted in the past."