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Illinois Governor and Advocates Urge Last-Minute Participation in Census

People can respond online to the U.S. Census for the first time in 2020.
U.S. Census Bureau
U.S. Census Bureau

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this week that counting for the 2020 Census can stop.

The court decision adds to the ongoing confusion about the census but doesn’t change the message advocates have been touting since the count began in the spring, said Reema Kamran, executive director of the Illinois Muslim Civic Coalition.

"Do the census ASAP," Kamran said, echoing the group’s consistent messaging. "And the reason for that is to show the urgency. But also to let people know that you have a voice and you deserve to be counted. And you shouldn’t delay such a simple thing that can make such a big impact."

The Illinois Muslim Civic Coalition is one of dozens of groups that has been advocating for an accurate count. Multiple court battles and the coronavirus pandemic have scrambled deadlines and plans for the once-in-a-decade survey, adding to concerns about an undercount.

Most recently, civic groups sued the Trump administration over its decision to end the count a month early on September 30. Advocates initially won in lower court, but , the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday the Trump administration could end the count.

The online self-response tool, a new feature this year, will be live through 4:59 a.m. on Oct. 16. Door-knocking and other in-person follow up in Illinois will wrap up on Thursday. Mailed surveys must be postmarked by Thursday as well, and it’s the last day phone response is available. A list of numbers is on the Census Bureau’s website .

Gov. JB Pritzker called the court’s ruling “disappointing” in a news briefing Wednesday. It came a day after the state pledged to spend $1 million more to encourage participation in the census. The state set aside $29 million for census efforts.

“In normal times the Census is a monumental undertaking and the pandemic has brought countless new challenges,” Pritzker said. “The consequences of this decision will reverberate for at least the next ten years.”

The count determines where trillions of dollars in federal funding are spent, as well as how congressional and legislative maps are drawn.

The Census Bureau reports 99% of Illinois households have been counted in the 2020 census, with 71.2% from Illinoisans who responded online, by phone or by mail, and 28.7% from follow up by Census takers to non-respondents.

But Kamran says those numbers can be misleading because they are an aggregate, and many neighborhoods have a much lower self-response rate. This is especially true in immigrant and refugee communities, and communities of color, she said.

Chicago’s response rate is 60.5%, according to data collected by the City University of New York Mapping Service, which tracks response rates down to the census tract level. In some census tracts in the city, it drops below 50%.

See the full map at www.censushardtocountmaps2020.us

There is a focus on the self-response rate because it provides the most accurate data, said Steven Romalewski, director of the CUNY Mapping Service.

“People who didn’t self-respond tend to be people of color or immigrants or people in poverty. And therefore those population groups would be hurt the most by undercounts or by data quality concerns,” Romalewski said. "People are very concerned... that for population groups that need the most to be counted accurately and fairly may not be."

An undercount can mean less federal money for schools, health care and other services for those communities, as well as less political representation.

Romalewski said it’s unclear if the bureau counted the remaining nearly 30 percent of households in person or relied on less accurate alternatives, such as asking a landlord or neighbor, or using administrative records.

A spokesperson for the Census Bureau said it “takes extraordinary steps to get a response from every household”, including up to six attempts at each address to get in touch with residents before turning to proxy sources, like neighbors.

“As a last resort, the Census Bureau fills in missing information about households using imputation or the use of administrative records. We impute only a tiny percentage of the total population count,” the spokesperson wrote.

Romalewski said the goal has been to get the self-response rate above where it was in 2010, which Illinois has, because even that year there was an undercount. But he said even that marker is complicated.

He said the debate and legal battle over a question about citizenship scared some away from completing the Census, even though the question was not ultimately included. Then the pandemic delayed and changed enumeration plans. And finally, the recent court battle has shortened the time frame for responses by two weeks.

“Everything else being equal, a better response rate is a good thing,” Romalewski said. “But in 2020 nothing else has been equal.”

Mary Hansen is a former NPR Illinois reporter.
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