Political nose count

Photo By dennis myers Two building workers at 639 Isbell Road eat lunch. The building contains the Reno office of the U.S. Census Bureau. The Bureau may have increased suspicion of the census by trying to hide local offices, posting the streets but not the street numbers.

It never occurred to Jill, a Sparks woman, not to fill out and mail her census form.

“We sat around the kitchen table and filled it out,” she said.

On the other hand, Victoria phoned the RN&R to complain about the invasion of privacy in the census forms. This was before the forms had been mailed, so presumably she was reacting to news reports or online claims about the forms. But she declined to give her full name or phone number.

Every 10 years, paranoia sweeps the nation. It’s called the census.

Accompanying the paranoia is the anxiety of local political officials who try to coax everyone to fill out their census forms so federal funds will not be lost.

This census is no different.

“There’s no reason for them to need all that information,” Victoria told us.

Talk show host Rush Limbaugh: “I haven’t seen a census form since I left home in 1970. I wonder how widespread this is, that areas thought to be Republican are either not getting forms or not being visited by the census workers.”

There are two census forms, and that too has become grist for the mill. One form is simple and short, the other simple and longer (except for its name—the American Community Survey). Only a small sample receive the long form. A CNN commentator named Erick Erickson said if someone brought the long form to his house he would “pull out my wife’s shotgun and see how that little ACS twerp likes being scared at the door.” Though his remarks seem to leave little doubt of his meaning, Erickson later said they had been “misconstrued.” (Newsbusters.org argued that the reaction to Erickson’s remarks was unfair because he was not threatening all census workers, only those bringing the long form.)

However, conservatives got their signals mixed up. While Limbaugh and others were complaining that they weren’t getting census forms, Ron Paul and others were urging people not to fill out any more of the forms than the nose-counting section, advice that could result in fines against citizens.

Ron Paul: “Article I, section 2 of the Constitution calls for an enumeration of citizens every 10 years. … In other words, the census should be nothing more than a headcount.”

Rep. Michele Bachmann, a Minnesota Republican: “I know for my family the only question we will be answering is how many people are in our home. We won’t be answering any information beyond that, because the Constitution doesn’t require any information beyond that.”

Other conservative conflicts: One reason Bachman warned against filling out the whole questionnaire is that census data was allegedly used to round up Japanese Americans in World War II. But the anti-immigrant group Americans for Legal Immigration Political Action Committee wants the census data used that way, to hunt down illegal aliens.

Although the census has always taken information from respondents about their races on faith—ages, marital status and so on—there are anti-gay groups that don’t want the same policy extended to same-gender couples. The Faith and Freedom Network and Foundation has complained that the census will allow same-gender couples to “label themselves as husband or wife.” The group also does not want figures on the number of gay marriages in the United States released to the public that paid for the census.

Whether queries in addition to nose-counting questions on the census form are unconstitutional as Bachmann and Paul claim has never been litigated. A couple of times in the constitution the phrase “census or enumeration” is used, which may distinguish between the two. And at times the constitutional convention delegates seemed to suggest that they expected more than just noses to be counted, at least in one area. Delegate Hugh Williamson made reference to the census tracking “alterations that may happen in the population and wealth of the several States.”

At any rate, the efforts of conservative leaders to demonize the census seems to be working. Early figures show low counts of census form returns in conservative areas, which may result in GOP regions getting less representation in legislative redistricting in both Congress and legislatures.

Nevada, naturally, is lagging behind the nation in returning census forms (61 to 64 percent). For that matter, it’s lagging behind the rate of returns by Nevadans 10 years ago (69 percent). The relatively large number of Nevadans on the political fringe (Pat Robertson and Ron Paul have both done well here in GOP presidential contests) may be driving the rate of returns down. But it’s more than that. The state is always highly transient, a factor enhanced lately by the state’s first-in-the-nation rate of home foreclosures.

Nevada Secretary of State Ross Miller on the census: “With the foreclosure crisis, this is a moving target, literally.”

As usual, Nevada officialdom is scolding everyone to return census forms in order to increase the amount of federal funding for various programs in the next 10 years. Nevada college students have been prosthelytized and jail officials have been conducting counts of their inmates. Washoe County sheriff’s spokesperson: “Jail staff compiled statistics of the inmates developing a snapshot of those residing in the facility on April 01, 2010 (Census Day). … We had a total of 1,088 inmates in custody on April 1st.”

There are 17 “QACs” (Questionnaire Assistance Centers) set up around the Truckee Meadows to assist people.

Sparks Tribune columnist Andrew Barbano has added a novel twist: “Your government has been lying to you all your life but now you have a chance for a little payback: Lie on your census form. It’s your patriotic duty. For every person undercounted, our cash-strapped state will lose about $10,000 in federal tax money over the next decade. So add four people to your household, and you’ve scored the return of $40,000.”

There has been wastage in the conduct of the census. The first piece of census mail people got was not the census form but a letter telling them that they would be getting the census form later. That cost $57 million. Another later postcard reminded them to send in their forms. Neither mailing, or any other official mailing, contained the information that would probably have motivated the public most of all—that each individual failure to mail the census form for 42 cents will cost $57 for a follow-up visit to each residence by a census worker. Every one percent of the public that fails to mail forms costs $85 million in follow-up visits.

Nevada will have about 4,800 census workers in the state, one worker for every census tract. Never has it come at a better time. (The Obama administration is adjusting unemployment figures to allow for the temporary census workers so that jobless figures do not show exaggerated job growth.)

On Dec. 23, Election Data Services (EDS) in Virginia released numbers showing that if population trends continue Nevada will gain another U.S. House seat after the 2010 census.

On Dec. 31, Nevada State Demographer Jeff Hardcastle reported his latest population estimates, which indicated the state has begun to lose population. The Census Bureau, while not finding a loss of population, basically found that population growth in Nevada has stalled. So population trends are no longer continuing.

So does that mean Nevada will lose its new seat in the House? Probably not, according to EDS’s Kim Brace. When we asked what it would take for Nevada to lose the seat, Brace described a scenario that is unlikely to occur:

“Using our short term analysis, if Nevada lost 213,540 people and all other states stayed the same, then Nevada would not receive their extra seat. You may have lost some of that, but I would tend to doubt you’ve lost all of it. … I would think you’re 80 percent sure of getting that new seat, give or take a few.”

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About Dennis Myers 1397 Articles
Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely Nevada, a children’s history textbook, and a contributor to the books The Mythical West and Covering the Courts in Nevada. In September, 2020, he was inducted into the Nevada Newspaper Hall of Fame.