The effort for a “complete count” of Alabama households in the 2020 census has entered its final month, and while the state has performed better than others in the region, officials remain concerned about losing a congressional seat if numbers don’t improve.
As of Aug. 30, a total of 73.6 percent of households in Alabama had been enumerated through self-response to the 2020 census or by non-responsive follow-ups, which is already higher than the rate reported 10 years ago, but still nearly 9 percentage points behind the national average.
“Our census response rate a decade ago was 72.5 percent,” said Kenneth Boswell, director of the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs and chairman of the Alabama Counts! 2020 Census Committee. “We have been told if we don’t get this up substantially, we will lose a congressional seat. Seventy-three percent is not substantial, so we’re still on the verge that if we don’t get these numbers up substantially, we will lose a congressional seat and federal funding that goes along with that.”
Self-response rates vary widely in counties and municipalities across the state, from a high of 76.2 percent in Shelby County to a low of 36.6 percent in neighboring Coosa County. Along the coast, 60.3 percent of households in Mobile County have self-responded to the census while across the bay, only 56 percent of Baldwin County households have done the same.
“Right now, [Mobile and Baldwin counties] really need to work hard to get those numbers up,” Boswell said. “As far as where we need to be, my response has always been consistent: as close to 100 percent as we can get it, and we’ve got a month. Do I think it’s feasible to get to 100 percent? Absolutely not. I’m a realist, not a daydreamer. But can we get it to 80 percent and above? Absolutely.”
Marilyn Stephens, assistant regional census manager for the seven-state Southeast Region of the U.S. Census Bureau, said Alabama leads the region in its response rate this year, and since field operations began last month, she anticipates the number will grow before the Sept. 30 deadline.
“We are on target,” she said of the effort. “We have daily production goals and we are enumerating them in Alabama. People are cooperating by filling out their census forms either by phone or going online.”
Those who have not responded are currently being targeted by field workers for follow-up, either by phone or through a personal visit, although Stephens admitted the pandemic caused a three-month delay in the process. Still, this year “is more of an automated census,” she said, where for the first time in history, respondents can participate by phone, by mail or online.
Meanwhile, although field operations were curtailed over the summer and staffing levels were reevaluated, Stephens said it remains “the largest peacetime civilian mobilization in the country.”
Between March 1 and Aug. 9, the Census Bureau hired 47,025 temporary workers in the Southeast Region, encompassing Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas. Stephens could not immediately disclose how many people were currently working in the field in Alabama, but said in many instances, early hires have claimed more hours since many were left unemployed by the pandemic.
“We are tasked with the responsibility of ensuring we have enumerated all 100 percent of households,” she said. “In order to accomplish it, we have so many different models of our operations plan, and where many [temporary workers] would typically work for us two-to-four hours per day on the weekend for extra income, with the pandemic, we have more people out of work, working more hours.”
At the same time, there has been a larger attempt than ever with this census to collaborate with state and local governments to promote self-response, one that appears to be paying off.
“Every census is different,” she said. “This one has not disappointed, but we did not count on the pandemic.”
U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne acknowledged Gov. Kay Ivey has “taken a strong leadership role” in ensuring an accurate count, “but despite that, we have a response rate of 58 percent in my district.”
Byrne believes the loss of one of Alabama’s seven congressional seats remains a real threat and if it comes to pass, Mobile and Baldwin counties may be split into separate districts.
“It’s the ultimate game of political musical chairs as to who should be included and who will be left out and that’s not fun,” he warned. “I’ve seen maps that would split the First Congressional District with Baldwin County going in one direction and Mobile in another. It’s like a Rubik’s Cube … and there is an assumption we have to obtain a majority-minority district — which is Congresswoman Terry Sewell’s — and her district is going to have to get much larger geographically, and I think there will be a major effort to push her district into my present district.”
Byrne said while there are “several ways to do it,” he imagines any legislative redistricting in the state will likely be contentious and however it’s accomplished, “the state will probably be sued” by civil rights organizations.
“But I think the census can be successful,” he said. “I’m hoping anyone who hasn’t responded will realize they need to do this. It’s going to take a very concerted effort and governments are pushing very hard their local operations around the state, but we have to wake people up and get people to participate.”
Sen. Doug Jones said he also remains concerned about the possible loss of a congressional seat and related federal funding, while he also criticized the Trump administration for approving a shortened timeline for completion of field operations, while also failing to extend the Dec. 31 deadline to submit the numbers to the White House.
“The House has already passed a bill to extend the Sept. 30 [field operations deadline] and to extend the Dec. 31 reporting to the president,” he said. “And I hope the Senate will do the same, but it depends on the amount of pushback we get from the administration. Alabama is behind the curve and we’re way behind where we should be to maintain seven congressional seats. I have been concerned about the way the admin has treated the census. For whatever reason, it seems the Trump administration does not want to count all the folks. I don’t know why, but it’s going to hurt states like Alabama, which supported this president.”
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