Census Mail Results Could Be Trouble for 5 States

Hope Yen, MSNBC, April 28, 2010

Five states–New York, California, Texas, Arizona and Florida–are perilously close to losing out on congressional seats because of lackluster participation in the U.S. census.

The five were average or below average in mailing back 10-question census forms when compared to other states, trailing by as many as 5 percentage points, according to the final census mail-in tally released Wednesday.

Based on recent population trends, New York, California and Texas had been estimated to fall just above the cutoff for the last House seats when they are redistributed next year. Waiting behind them in hopes of picking up additional seats are Arizona and Florida, which are already expected to gain one seat apiece.

Responses from these states also raise a red flag because of their higher shares of residents who are Latinos. The Census Bureau has said one of its main concerns is whether tensions over immigration will discourage Latinos, and particularly illegal immigrants, from participating in the government count. That issue returned to the forefront after Arizona passed a tough immigration enforcement bill.

Latino residents represent a predominant share of the population growth in New York, California, Texas, Arizona and Florida, making up more than 50 percent of total growth since 2000. As a result, those states could face big losses if there isn’t full cooperation when the Census Bureau on Saturday begins knocking on the doors of those who did not respond by mail.

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‘Incredibly disappointed’

Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, said he was concerned about some skittish Latinos who may refuse to answer their doors, particularly given Arizona’s new immigration law.

“I’m incredibly disappointed with the Obama administration in their efforts to promote the census,” Vargas said, citing the government’s failure to halt immigration raids during the count as it did in 2000. “It may have the impact of shooting people in the foot if Arizona ends up losing out on a House seat.”

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‘The census is not over’

On Wednesday, Census Bureau director Robert Groves attributed the strong mail participation rate of 72 percent to the bureau’s advertising and outreach campaign, which helped overcome growing public apathy toward surveys as well as distrust of the government. But he said it remained uncertain how that will translate to “how the American public reacts when we knock on their door.”

“The census is not over,” said Groves, who noted the non-respondents were disproportionately low-income, lesser-educated or renters. “For those of you who haven’t been counted in the 2010 census, this is your moment.”

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At training sessions this week, temporary census workers were instructed on the protocols of conducting interviews, such as how to tabulate answers on race (let people self-identify if they’re multiracial, but a label of “American” isn’t a sufficient response), where to ask questions (outside, since census workers should not ask to enter a person’s home) and carrying proper identification (government badges and a “U.S. Census Bureau” bag).

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