Threats of Census Boycotts Nothing New
The Eye has received several calls and messages regarding Rep. Michele Bachmann's comments that she will refuse to fill out anything more than the number of people in her household on her 2010 Census form. The Minnesota Republican says she's worried about the potential abuse of information on her questionnaire.
Among other things, Bachmann is also concerned about the participation of the Association of Community Organizers for Reform Now, or ACORN, in a U.S. Census Bureau partnership with thousands of local leaders, civic organizations, churches, media outlets, corporations and other groups that will actively encourage their members, constituencies, customers and viewers to fill out their Census forms.
"They will be in charge of going door to door and collecting data from the American public," she said. "This is very concerning."
Not quite, say Census officials: the agency's partners might go door-to-door, but only to promote participation and not to collect personal information.
(Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.)
Remember also that Bachman is not the first lawmaker or prominent leader to suggest Americans not participate in the Census. A group of Latino pastors threatened to boycott the headcount earlier this year if President Obama does not address immigration reform. (He said he still supports reforms earlier today.)
And then there's this March 2000 story by The Post's then-Census correspondent D'Vera Cohn (reposted here in full because our online archives don't stretch back that far):
Census Flap Intensifies Director Pleads For Compliance By D'Vera Cohn Washington Post Staff Writer
GOP presidential candidate George W. Bush said yesterday he was not sure he would fill out the census long form if he were asked to, just as census officials were pleading with the public to answer all the questions on their forms.
Democrats, meanwhile, went on the attack, accusing Republicans of trying to undermine the national head count, and Republicans adopted a variety of stances, from conciliatory to defiant.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) issued a statement clarifying his stand and said he supports the census. Another conservative Republican said he would press ahead with legislation to make answers to most census questions voluntary.
Bush, who made his comments in Milwaukee, stopped short of advising people not to fill out their census forms. He said, "If they're worried about the government intruding into their personal lives, they ought to think about it." He also said: "We want as accurate a count as possible, but I can understand why people don't want to give over that information to the government. If I have the long form, I'm not so sure I would do it either."
Bush said he has not opened his census form and does not know whether he was sent the long one--which contains questions on plumbing, income and other subjects that critics say are intrusive--or the short one. The long form goes to one of every six households.
The debate over whether the census asks too many personal questions comes at a crucial point for the national count. Most Americans received their forms this month, and 49 percent had responded as of yesterday.
Census Day is tomorrow, April 1, and Director Kenneth Prewitt said yesterday that he expects millions more people to sit down at their kitchen tables this weekend and ask, "Should I take the time to fill this form out or not?"
"This information is going to sustain our country for a decade," Prewitt said at a news conference held in the bay of a Fairfax County fire station, where dispatchers use census-generated digital maps to route their emergency vehicles.
Prewitt said he is concerned that some people may hear complaints and think that "this information is not very important at all."
But it is, he insisted, citing the example of Hurricane Andrew in 1993, when census data helped Florida officials figure out where obliterated streets once stood and where to put emergency shelters.
To bolster their case, census officials released a letter to Prewitt from the Republican co-chairman of the bipartisan Census Monitoring Board, J. Kenneth Blackwell, and a Democratic member, Everett M. Ehrlich, urging people to complete their census forms and stating that "at this late date, we do not believe it is productive to renew the debate over census content."
Every question on forms for the estimated $6.8 billion census, they pointed out, is required by a federal law or court ruling. Congress had the chance to review census questions two years ago when the forms were drawn up but took no action, they said.
At a hastily organized news conference on Capitol Hill, House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) said he thought Republicans have "gotten worried that too many people are filling out the forms. . . . They don't want more people counted because they think it serves their political purpose. That's a pretty shoddy reason to do what they're doing."
Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) said yesterday that he is sympathetic to people's concerns about some of the more personal census questions, but "once a decade for us to put [up] with a little inconvenience to be able to get as good an appreciation of circumstances in America is something that we ought to try to accommodate."
Democrats gleefully pointed out that an education proposal unveiled this week by Bush depends on accurate data that only the census produces. Bush's proposal would let parents use federal Title 1 money--which is allocated by using census data--to send their children to private or charter schools.
Prominent census critic Matthew Glavin, who won a Supreme Court judgment against the government over its plan to augment the count with statistical sampling, announced he would join another suit against the census. The suit alleges that asking questions beyond those needed to apportion congressional seats is an invasion of privacy.
The lawsuit was filed in Texas by former GOP congressional candidate Mark Brewer on behalf of five plaintiffs. Brewer has won a restraining order prohibiting the government from trying to prosecute his clients for not filing their forms while the suit is being heard. People can be fined $100 for not filing their forms, but it has rarely been enforced.
"This is a case about privacy and whether or not the government can extort information under penalty of prosecution," said Glavin, executive director of the Southeastern Legal Foundation.
Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) announced yesterday he would introduce legislation that would make it voluntary for people to answer all questions except those required for reapportionment. A spokeswoman, Deb Fiddelke, said the measure would likely have both Democratic and Republican sponsors.
Lott's office, meanwhile, issued a statement softening his comments a day earlier that people need not answer census questions they regard as intrusive. Lott, said spokesman John Czwartacki, wants everyone to be counted.
"While census officials ask citizens to fill out all questions on all forms, if an individual feels their rights are infringed and privacy is invaded by a question or two--don't throw the whole form away and not be counted," the statement said.
Census officials said it is too early to tell whether complaints about the long form could discourage people from sending it in. That possibility alarms government statistical agencies because long-form figures are the basis for building a national sample of households. Information gathered from that sample becomes the basis for several key economic statistics.
For instance, Katharine G. Abraham, commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, said, "Without accurate long form data, it would be far more difficult and far more costly for us to produce an accurate consumer price index."
Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) criticized Republicans for "undermining" local efforts at boosting the census count.
Duncan noted that census data is used to determine the county's priorities for funding a variety of services, including school construction, the building of parks and the distribution of social services and housing programs.
Staff writers John Berry, Kenneth J. Cooper and Manuel Perez-Rivas contributed to this report.
Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
Follow The Federal Eye on Twitter!
Posted by: rpa777 | June 20, 2009 11:45 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: sander | June 26, 2009 9:53 AM | Report abuse
The comments to this entry are closed.