TALLAHASSEE — As millions of Florida residents open their mailboxes to find their 2010 census forms this week, Gov. Charlie Crist is using his bully pulpit to remind everyone of their "civic duty" to fill out the forms and return them as soon as possible.
At stake are hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds, at least one additional seat in Congress, and an accurate snapshot of the population of Florida, soon to be the nation's third-largest state. This census data will be used to apportion money and political power to the states for the next decade.
With a lawsuit threatening to impede Florida's census outreach efforts, Crist used the megaphone of his office Wednesday, and its pipeline to TV, radio and newspapers, to pitch for an accurate count.
He noted that the $2.1 million allocated by the Legislature for marketing and outreach to undercounted groups such as African-Americans and undocumented immigrants won't go far in a state of 19 million people.
Flanked by a Cuban-American state senator, Rudy Garcia of Hialeah, and a statewide African-American leader, Adora Obi Nweze of the NAACP, Crist tailored his census message to Hispanics and blacks, two groups critical to ensuring an accurate count.
"It's very important for our fellow Floridians to take this seriously — to fill this out," Crist said. "It is only about 10 questions. It's simple, it's easy and it's important. Filling out the census is a civic duty for everybody in our state."
Obi Nweze, who met with Crist shortly before his hastily called news conference, said Florida's diversity adds to the challenge of ensuring an accurate census count. She also emphasized that the need for accuracy is related to complaints by Floridians of inadequate programs in human services and other areas.
"Everything that affects your life really centers around your sending the form back," she said. "When you don't have resources and you complain that you don't have enough resources, you may have forgotten to fill out the census."
Garcia, who spoke in English and Spanish, emphasized that it is important for undocumented immigrants to fill out the census form. "No one has ever had a problem with immigration based on being counted for the census," Garcia said. "On the contrary, it's been of great benefit to the people of Florida to be counted."
Obi Nweze said she was not concerned that the U.S. government continues to use the word "Negro" in the census form, as it has for decades. The term fell out of use during the civil rights movement and is considered outdated, but the Census Bureau has said it included the term on Question 9 as a form of inclusion, because some people will prefer to be identified that way.
"That is a bona fide terminology for them (the government) to use," Obi Nweze said. "I think people will mark it if they are comfortable with it, and if they are not, they will put in what they want to be called."
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report.