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Confusion over census deadline changes raises accuracy concerns

In under two months, the census deadline has moved at least three times, forcing cities and communities to quickly adjust.
Published: Sep. 29, 2020 at 6:45 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - The 2020 census deadline is again in question, after U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross said counting would end Oct. 5, despite a federal judge ruling it could continue through the end of October. In Madison, these changes are raising fears of an undercount.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 98 percent of households in the U.S. have been counted so far.

Census data is used to redraw congressional and local city council districts. The data is also used to distribute $1.5 trillion in federal funding to states, counties and other communities.

This is not the first deadline change that has forced the City of Madison and other community groups to quickly adjust.

“The danger when it feels like we’re rushing a little bit to meet the changed Sept. 30 deadline is that those traditionally undercounted populations are the ones that would lose out on having a complete count,” said city planner Ben Zellers.

In August, the Census Bureau announced it would end counting by Sept. 30, instead of the previously announced Oct. 31 deadline. Census Bureau officials said they moved the date to meet a Dec. 31 deadline to deliver data for redrawing congressional districts.

A federal judge ruled in late September that the Census Bureau could continue counting until the end of October, suspending the end-of-the-year deadline to deliver numbers.

“Having this extra time is definitely a benefit,” Zellers said of the extension.

Days later, on Sept. 28, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce moved the deadline again, up to Oct. 5.

“It does cause confusion certainly out there in the general public,” said Zellers, referring to the multiple changes.

Zellers said the City of Madison is in good shape in terms of census response. The city is continuing to remind people to fill out the census, including by adding census flyers to absentee ballot envelopes being mailed out.

According to the Census Bureau, the state of Wisconsin is 15th in the nation for response rate, with 99.6 percent of households counted.

However, concerns in Madison linger, especially when it comes to minorities.

“I am concerned about the count and I’m concerned about the implications,” said Nina Gehan, director of advancement at Centro Hispano of Dane County. She added, “Minority populations are very much underreported.”

Gehan said communities of color are often reluctant to give officials personal information the Census Bureau needs to avoid duplicates.

“You don’t know that that’s why they’re asking for your birth date and your name,” she explained.

Gehan added that it takes time for trusted community groups to build confidence in the safety of the census.

“There is confidence when they come to the door in a different way than, yes, when a census worker shows up,” Gehan explained.

For now, Centro Hispano is emphasizing the message that people’s personal information is safe with the Census Bureau. The group is preparing for the end on Oct. 5, but still hoping for more time.

“It’s not going to give an accurate count if it’s pushed too quickly,” Gehan said.

Census workers are continuing to follow up with households that have not responded to the census, but people can still fill it out on their own.

The census can be filled out online by going to 2020census.gov, or people can fill it out over the phone, with assistance available in several different languages.

Copyright 2020 WMTV. All rights reserved.

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