How coronavirus is busting California’s $187 million census campaign

In Summary

Despite investing more than any other state, California's response rate is off more than 10% from the final 2010 count. Even with extensions, there’s a possibility for a record low turnout that would sink the state's $187 million investment.

Heather Heckler was counting on buying census ads in four weekly newspapers that have long served Plumas County, located in the northern Sierra Nevada. As communications manager for Connecting Point, a public agency that received state funding, she hoped to boost the county’s census participation rate, which was tracking below half the statewide average.

Then the Feather Publishing Company Inc. called to announce it was halting publication as the coronavirus pandemic gutted revenues. “That was a huge gut punch,” Heckler said. 

Now, she’s at a loss for getting people’s attention: “I think the census is very important, but it’s not top of mind for a lot of people at this moment.” 

One month into the decennial population count, the statewide response rate is off more than 10% from the final 2010 count. Even with extensions, there’s a possibility for a record low turnout. In some counties, as few as one in 10 households have completed the survey. And since the coronavirus upended much of the state’s door-to-door canvassing effort, there aren’t any plans for a headcount of people experiencing homelessness. 

Long before the outbreak, state and local officials were wringing their hands about a potential California undercount as the president’s political rhetoric stoked fear in the state’s sizable immigrant population. Now it turns out the deadly coronavirus could single-handedly sink the state’s $187 million census campaign. 

Redistricting in jeopardy

With each mile marker missed by the census, state lawmakers grow anxious about what comes after the count. California’s independent redistricting commission is required to take public input before drawing new state and federal voting districts next year. But given how much the federal government pushed back deadlines, it may leave insufficient time for the public to vet new district lines. 

“Even if you had a super computer that could spit out maps in two weeks, you can’t do that,” said state Sen. Tom Umberg, a Santa Ana Democrat and the co-chair of the Senate’s select committee on the census.

Umberg said lawmakers may need to place a redistricting extension on the November ballot. If approved, the new deadline could bump up against the election cycle. In that case, it’s conceivable candidates could be out campaigning before they find out who they will represent come Election Day.

“Right now as it currently exists, the redistricting maps won’t be final until after the candidacy period opens,” Umberg said. “So in other words, candidates will be potentially running in districts that haven’t been finalized yet, which could create a huge amount of chaos.”

California went big on census spending

Nearly all states are struggling with low response rates due to coronavirus restrictions, but none have arguably invested as much as California

Gov. Gavin Newsom and lawmakers injected the state’s census office with a big budget and tasked the staff with coaxing reluctant and apathetic residents to answer nine questions about their households. Through media campaigns and community partnerships, the goal was to get to those hard-to-reach communities prone to historical undercounts.

But while the state is doing better than New Mexico and West Virginia, it only marginally leads others that didn’t invest nearly as much. 

As of this week, the Golden State has a 54.6% response rate, which is slightly better than the national average — but well short of California’s 68.2% response rate in 2010. Without course correction, the 2020 census could yield one of the lowest returns in recent memory. 

Agencies offer conflicting outlooks

Despite low participation and a number of delays, federal officials remain upbeat. 

“From my perspective, we’re on track,” said Jeffrey Enos, a deputy regional director with the U.S. Census Bureau. “We’ve had to make adjustments due to the pandemic. I’m confident this will be a successful and accurate census.”

State census officials don’t share their federal counterpart’s optimism, noting that ever-changing deadlines create bottlenecks for workers on the ground.

“We are working within their timeline,” said Diana Crofts-Pelayo, a spokesperson for California Complete Count. “There are still a lot of unanswered questions for us to ensure that we can pivot accordingly.”

Uncertainty hinders the count

The federal government had originally scheduled a count of people who are experiencing homelessness and living outdoors for March 30. After two delays, the Census Bureau has yet to set a new date.

The agency also delayed outreach for people with P.O. Boxes and addresses that can’t be verified. For this group, census workers are required to physically find the homes and update addresses that couldn’t be verified. They must also leave census information at the door. 

And due to outdated practices, census questionnaires aren’t sent to P.O. Boxes. But leaving off those delivery points could overlook rural communities or wildfire victims who remain displaced from their homes. 

In response, community organizers are mailing out census information to P.O. Boxes ensuring people are at least aware that the census is happening.

Getting creative on the hard-to-reach

Though advocates traded community events for virtual outreach, they worry the hard-to-reach have only become harder to reach.

Michele Silverthorn said the United Way of San Diego’s census partners found a way to hand out flyers by placing them at food banks and grocery stores. Others are being passed out at schools where people can still pick up meals for their children.

Even in San Mateo County, with the one of the highest response rates, advocates worry about leaving behind vulnerable pockets without conventional canvassing and door knocking. Melissa Vergara said the county is targeting communities with TV ads in Spanish and Mandarin.

Initially, outreach workers hoped to man kiosks for people to fill out their census forms and ask questions in person. The access points were meant to target people without cell phones and internet access since the questionnaires are being submitted online for the first time.

Then coronavirus happened.

“There was a hope that folks could access computer kiosks in libraries, but people aren’t permitted to enter those kinds of facilities right now,” Umberg, the lawmaker, said. “All of that is hindered.”

Heckler, the outreach worker in Northern California, said people can still phone in their responses, but there aren’t enough operators.

“The wait times have been quite long for the phone,” Heckler said. “I don’t want to send people into a phone call black hole. It should be a 10-minute process.”

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