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A farm sits just outside the town limits of Norwood, Colorado,in San Miguel County on June 23, 2019. Colorado will spend big bucks in the next year trying to make sure people who live in rural areas are counted in the 2020 census. (William Woody, Special to the Colorado Sun)

Just 33% of the households in San Miguel County that received a 2010 census questionnaire mailed it back to the federal government.

And many others never were mailed one in the first place.

In the vast majority of the county, which stretches from mountainous ski resort towns like Telluride to sparsely populated rural areas along the Utah border, residents rely on P.O. boxes, where census forms aren’t delivered. That means federal census takers must go door-to-door in an attempt to count as many people as they can — and it’s not clear how many are missed.

Some fear participation rates could get even worse in 2020, when the U.S. Census Bureau for the first time will urge residents to fill out the once-a-decade questionnaire online, instead of by mail. More than one in 10 of San Miguel County’s estimated 7,800 residents lacked high-speed internet access in 2017, according to the latest federal estimates, and the broadband gap is even greater in some surrounding areas. And then there’s the pending court case about whether to allow a citizenship question.

Over the next year, the state of Colorado will spend $6 million trying to persuade hard-to-count residents to participate in the next federal census, which begins April 1, 2020. The money will be distributed through an outreach grant program approved in the 2019 legislative session that will allow local governments, nonprofits and certain other organizations to apply for funding.

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The goal of the program is this: The more Coloradans counted in the 2020 census, the more federal money the state stands to receive from grant programs that distribute funds according to population size.

For each person not counted in San Miguel County, Commissioner Hilary Cooper said they’ve been told they lose about $1,200 a year that could go toward public services. That may not sound like much in the context of a state government that spends more than $30 billion annually. But “for a small county like ours,” Cooper said, even “five to 10 people who are undercounted, that’s a significant underfunding of our resources that are already underfunded.”

Multiply that across the state, and supporters argue that by spending $6 million, the state could potentially bring back tens of millions of dollars from Washington, to invest in public services like transportation. And — adding to the stakes — Colorado is among a handful of states expected to get a new congressional seat based on estimated population growth since the 2010 census.

“When we’re undercounting, we’re leaving money on the table,” says Sen. Faith Winter, a Westminster Democrat who cosponsored House Bill 1239 creating the program.

Colorado 145 cuts through farmland outside Norwood, an area where politicians are worried rural residents won’t be counted in the 2020 census. A recent study found the state cold lose much as $63 million a year in federal funding if the state is undercounted by 1%. (William Woody, Special to the Colorado Sun)

The debate about census outreach fell along partisan lines

But to statehouse Republicans, who voted almost unanimously against the proposal, it was an example of the sort of thing state taxpayers have no business paying for in the first place. Why spend $6 million to help the federal government do its job — with no guarantee that Colorado will get back any money at all?

“We’re creating an incentive program to get people to fill out more paperwork,” remarked Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, during an April floor debate. “It’s an embarrassment of bureaucracy.”

Indeed, the census bureau has its own plans to enlist local leaders and nonprofits to assist in the counts. The bureau partners with each state through the Complete Count campaign, which is coordinated by volunteer committees at the state and local level.

But critics say it’s not enough. And the risks are great, particularly in a state that hasn’t been able to cobble together the funding needed to close school and transportation funding gaps a decade after the Great Recession. A George Washington University study found that Colorado stands to lose as much as $63 million a year if the state is undercounted by 1%.

Of course, if every state was undercounted equally, it may not matter. Grant funding is a zero-sum game, with each state winning funding based on their size relative to others. Trouble is, the potential payoff has turned the count into a competition among some states. California alone has allocated more than $100 million for outreach efforts.

But to Hill, just because there’s an arms race, doesn’t mean Colorado has to join. “Shame on the federal government for creating an incentive for states to spend scarce and limited resources to fill out more paperwork just to get our money back,” he said.

MORE: The 2019 legislative session in Colorado explained in 5 graphics

To supporters, the vote on the census outreach grants represented a surprising display of partisanship, even in a session dominated by ideological squabbles. In past counts, cities and states across the ideological spectrum have mounted public awareness campaigns in an attempt to boost their numbers and bring more federal money back to their districts. Colorado’s effort was backed by Colorado Counties Inc. and the Colorado Municipal League, along with the Colorado Farm Bureau.

“The census shouldn’t be partisan,” Winter said. “Counting people shouldn’t be partisan.”

The Census Bureau acknowledges a longstanding undercount of children, in particular. About 18,000 Colorado children, around 5%, weren’t counted in 2010, according to the Colorado Children’s Campaign. And national studies have found the undercount disproportionately misses Latino kids, who are a growing share of the state’s population.

The math problem is acute in rural areas

Rural and mountain communities like San Miguel County face particular challenges that worry local officials. Gini Pingenot, the legislative director of Colorado Counties, said local officials believe funding could help them reach people that could slip through the cracks, whether they lack a physical mailbox, or don’t have internet access.

A federal focus group found that four out of five rural residents in the nation who didn’t participate in the 2010 census said they never even received a form.

An address sign marks the location of a driveway to a home located just inside the town limits of Norwood in San Miguel County. (William Woody, Special to the Colorado Sun)

Cooper, the San Miguel County commissioner, said area officials plan to form a local Complete Count committee and they’re already in contact with the census bureau’s regional liaison. But the federal government won’t provide any funding to staff the effort. That’s where she hopes the state grants can help.

“I think really what it’s going to take is a knowledgeable person on the ground reaching out and having direct contact with our specific communities,” she said.

San Miguel’s 2010 mail return rate of 33% was less than half the 72% mark statewide, according to federal participation data. In nearby Hinsdale County, mail compliance was even worse: just 20% of census forms were returned, the worst mark in the state. There’s no way to know for sure how many people are missed in the door-to-door counts that follow.

But at the statehouse, appeals to rural Colorado — perhaps the most persuasive coin for political dealmakers at the state Capitol — fell on deaf ears among Republicans. And Democrats largely ignored the complaints of some Republicans, who feared ulterior political motives from the predominantly liberal advocacy groups, such as the Colorado chapters of Common Cause and the American Civil Liberties Union, that led the charge for the bill.

State Rep. Dave Williams, a Colorado Springs Republican. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

“We very well may get into situations where this money is spent for things that aren’t necessarily for census outreach,” said Rep. Dave Williams, a Colorado Springs Republican, who offered a failed amendment that would have earmarked the money for Colorado-based organizations. “There could be a number of political or other reasons for these (national) organizations to do what they’re doing.”

Adding to the partisan tension surrounding this year’s census is the Trump administration’s attempt to put a citizenship question on the form, a decision that opponents fear could depress participation among illegal immigrants and make it harder to get an accurate count. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide later this year whether the question can appear on the form.

With Democrats in control of both chambers and the governor’s office, the bill’s passage was never in doubt. Gov. Jared Polis signed the bill into law shortly after the 2019 legislative session concluded in May.

Next up is the appointment of a bipartisan board to award the grant money to applicants across the state. Then, the real challenge begins: Convincing people in an increasingly toxic political age that the government can be trusted with their information.

Special to The Colorado Sun
Twitter: @brianeason