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“It’s incredibly important we all get counted”: Rural Colorado’s Census response rates are lagging

Coronavirus concerns mean that door-to-door follow-up by Census takers in Colorado won’t begin until August

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Rural Colorado counties are lagging in responding to the Census, worrying government officials who say that an undercount could cost Colorado federal dollars and a possible new seat in the U.S. House. 

“It’s incredibly important we all get counted,” Gov. Jared Polis said while sporting a 2020 Census face mask during a news conference on Thursday. “The Census is about a lot more than just a number, it’s about how much resources we get from the federal government over the next decade.”

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis holds up a U.S. Census mask as he speaks to reporters at the governor’s mansion in downtown Denver on Thursday, June 11, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

But because of concerns about the spread of coronavirus, it will be August before census takers begin going door-to-door to interview those who have not responded. Oct. 31 is the last day to participate in the count.

As of Monday, about 64.6% of the mailed census forms had been returned, putting Colorado at No. 18 for participation among the 50 states and five U.S. territories. This go-round, people can respond to the Census online, by phone or by filling out a paper form and returning it in the mail.

The urban Front Range counties have the highest response rates, but participation is lowest in Hinsdale County, at 12.8%. The return rate is also low in tourism-heavy mountain counties, with Summit County landing among the bottom 10 for its 23.7% response rate. Grand County is even worse at 22.6%.

MORE: As rural Colorado fears being overlooked in 2020 census, some question spending money on outreach

Laurie Cipriano, a spokeswoman for the Census in Colorado, said the low response rate could either be due to large numbers of second-home owners in places like Summit, Grand, Pitkin, San Miguel and Eagle counties, or homeowners having mail sent to P.O. boxes — which the Census Bureau cannot send mail to, because the count is keyed to physical addresses.

But Summit County spokesman Jason Lederer said the low response rate also can be attributed to the large Hispanic community in mountain counties, some of whom may be nervous about giving information to the federal government. 

Summit County is using Spanish-language Facebook live events to explain how to participate in the Census and has programmed electronic road signs to encourage people to be counted — whether they are living in the U.S. legally or not.

“We want to make sure that they know that they are part of this community,” Lederer said. “And even though they are not always made to feel that way, we’re trying to help them feel a part of our community.” 

(Graphic by Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)

Getting an accurate count of all people living in Colorado is important enough that in 2019, the state legislature set aside $6 million to fund organizations tasked with tallying people who are typically difficult to count, including children under the age of 5, people of color, folks living in rural areas, migrant workers and people living unlawfully in the U.S. 

Last summer, the Department of Local Affairs distributed the money to 101 organizations.

Natriece Bryant, DOLA’s deputy executive director, said some of the work done by those groups had to be rethought after coronavirus fears shut down in-person meetings in March. She said the groups increased their use of social media and pivoted to doing things like including information about the Census in food distributions by local pantries.

 “We changed the way we did things because we couldn’t have in-person events,” she said, “but the message was still getting out.”

In August, Census takers hope to begin a phased start to door-to-door work making sure everyone is counted. Employees who have been trained on safety and social distancing protocols will head out to houses that have not yet responded and leave packets as a reminder and invitation to participate. 

“About 5% of households are counted during this operation, known as Update Leave, where Census workers confirm or update a household’s physical location address and then leave a Census questionnaire packet,” Cipriano said.

The statistics from the Census are used to determine the number of seats Colorado will hold in the U.S. House of Representatives and the way federal funds are allocated for the next 10 years. The data also may be used to redraw congressional districts. Lawmakers, business owners, teachers and others use the Census data to provide services, products and other support. 

This is the first time participants can fill out their Census forms online. The 2020 Census questions ask for telephone number, age, sex, race and date of birth of all residents in each home. If you receive any questions asking for bank account information, this is a scam and you should report it to the local police, Polis said.

Find out how you can respond and be counted at 2020census.gov.

Rising Sun