In addition to worrying about traditionally undercounted groups such as immigrants, minorities and those living in urban areas, the U.S. Census Bureau has a new concern — a potential boycott by some conservatives.
Skepticism about the census has been fanned by rhetoric from Republicans like Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who said census questions have become too personal and vowed in June that her family would answer only how many people were in her home "because the Constitution doesn't require any information beyond that."
And Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, cast the lone vote in the House against a resolution to encourage participation in the 2010 census, saying "the census, like so many government programs, has grown far beyond what the framers of our Constitution intended. The invasive nature of the current census raises serious questions about how and why government will use the collected information."
Higher levels of mistrust of the census among Republicans was borne out in a Pew Research Center survey in mid March that found Republicans were slightly more likely to doubt personal information would be kept confidential, and to believe that the census will ask more than the government really needs to know.
In response, the Census Bureau has targeted advertising to conservatives, including a public service announcement featuring President George W. Bush's former political adviser, Karl Rove, urging people to fully participate.
Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., the ranking Republican on the House subcommittee that oversees the census, recently put out a statement and wrote an op-ed piece for the conservative RedState.com blog seeking to address "blatant misinformation" coming from "otherwise well-meaning conservatives" within his own party.
"Early census returns are showing that conservatives have been measurably less likely than liberals to return their census forms," McHenry wrote.
"Few things will make Nancy Pelosi happier than large numbers of conservatives failing to respond to the census," McHenry said. "If we do not respond, we will not be counted, and if we are not counted, then we effectively will not exist. That would reduce conservatives' power in elections, allow Democrats to draw more favorable congressional boundaries and help put more tax-hiking politicians in office."
When Bachmann made her claim in June, we concluded the Constitution did provide the latitude to ask questions beyond how many people are in a home. It states, "The actual Enumeration shall be made within three years after the first meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent term of ten years, in such manner as they shall by law direct."
What's more, a law passed by Congress requires people to answer all the census questions.
Last week, we looked at three of the claims McHenry made in an effort to allay Republican fears that the census is too prying and cumbersome.
The first is that "the most private question on this year's form asks for an individual's race and that question has been asked by every census since the 1790 census conducted under then-President George Washington."
A review of census questionnaires all the way back to 1790 provide interesting insight into changing attitudes about race. While every census dealt with race issues, it hasn't always been a matter of "check your race here." In the first census in 1790, for example, the survey asked about the number of free white males and females; the number of "other free persons" and the number of slaves.
We also looked at McHenry's claim that "this census is also the shortest and least intrusive count in modern history."
The 2010 census has just 10 questions. That's two more than the short form in 2000. But in 2000, one out of six households got a long form, which had 53 questions. There is no long form this year — everyone gets the 10-question version.
And finally, we looked at the premise that early census returns show that conservatives have been less likely than liberals to participate.
Our analysis of early census returns concluded that the hand-wringing by McHenry and others may be overblown. His claim was based on a news report that conservative Texas was behind the national average in returning census forms, and some of the lowest rates were in Texas' most conservative counties. But we found the counties cited in the story had low response rates in 2000 as well, and several census experts we spoke with said the counties were far too small to make any kind of conclusion about a state trend, let alone a national one.
A statewide analysis of participation rates by a researcher at the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Texas found that Texas counties that had higher vote tallies for Republican John McCain in the 2008 presidential election have slightly higher participation rates in the census.
However, a nationwide analysis by the nonpartisan Daily Yonder, a news Web site that caters to rural America, found (after McHenry made his comments) that pro-McCain counties are responding ever so slightly below the national average.
Still, even the researcher who conducted the survey, as well as other demographers we spoke with, said a more thorough analysis would be needed to conclude this means conservatives are responding less than liberals, and that there may be lots of other reasons besides partisanship for response rates.
That Pew survey mentioned earlier, while it did find partisan differences in attitudes about the census, it also found that a slightly higher percentage of Republicans (90 percent) than Democrats and independents (85 percent each) said they intend to participate in the census. And last week, a census official said there has been little sign so far of people are sending back incomplete census forms.