According to a 2019 U.S. Census Bureau estimate, there are more than 21 million people living in Florida — and soon, the bureau must account for all of them.
Or, at least those still living in the state, as well as any new residents.
The U.S. Constitution requires a count of the country’s population each decade to determine how many U.S. representatives each state gets, as well as to allocate federal funding.
That goal has been complicated, however, by the pandemic and ever-shifting deadlines.
While the Census Bureau initially sought a fieldwork deadline extension until Oct. 31, it announced in August that it would be cutting its timeline to the end of September, under the direction of U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross. In yet another reversal, a federal judge Thursday ordered the Census Bureau to adhere to its Oct. 31 deadline.
“They’re in a back-and-forth situation,” explained Robert Santos, the Urban Institute’s chief methodologist and president-elect of the American Statistical Association.
The Trump administration filed an appeal Friday.
Many experts and advocates support a longer census count period, saying a shortened deadline could lead to undercounts, especially in communities of color. In Florida, an extended deadline is especially important, as the state has seen steady population growth over the past decade, and has a low self-response rate.
Where Florida’s numbers stand
As of Thursday, 95.2 percent of Florida’s population had been enumerated, ranking it at 43rd out of the 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.
Santos said that doesn’t mean that all of the counted Florida households have responded to the census. He contributed to an Urban Institute report that said Florida was at a high risk of an undercount, particularly among Black and Hispanic households.
The statistic includes households that did not respond to the census and were counted using administrative records. It also includes proxy responses, in which canvassers ask neighbors or landlords to complete the census for non-responsive households. Overall, Santos said, this data tends to be lower-quality than when households complete the census themselves — either with a canvasser or on their own.
“That has great implications for Florida, because if you look at Florida, it’s actually several points behind the national average in terms of self-response,” he said.
As of Thursday, 63.1 percent of Florida’s population had self-responded, meaning they completed the census via mail, phone or the internet. Florida’s self-response rate ranked it 33rd. Nationwide, 66.3 percent of households have self-responded.
In Tampa Bay, counties' self-response rates are close to the national rate.
As of Thursday, Hillsborough County’s self-response rate was 65.3 percent, while 66.4 percent of Pinellas residents and 66.5 percent of Pasco residents had responded online, through the mail or by phone. The counties were all in the top 20 response rates for Florida.
While metro areas tend to have higher self-response rates than rural areas, there are also inequities on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis, Santos explained.
“Some neighborhoods and areas are not going to get the political representation that they deserve because they were undercounted,” he said.
Santos sympathizes with the bureau, who he said has been caught in a back-and-forth battle over deadlines. With more time for census workers to stay in the field, it’s a “mini reprieve” but there’s still work to be done.
“Even if you had until December to do all the field work, there would still be a risk of undercount,” he said. “So what we’re trying to do is to minimize the flaws.”
An extended deadline means more time to achieve an accurate count, said Joshua Scacco, an associate professor of political communications at the University of South Florida.
“Politically and funding-wise, it is important to have as accurate of a count as possible and particularly in a state like Florida that is growing in population,” he said.
Increasing the count locally
Generally, southern states tend to have the lowest response rates, said Marilyn Stephens, an assistant regional census manager for the bureau.
“In the South, you have large poverty pockets and traditionally disenfranchised communities. … So it takes a little more work,” said Stephens, who oversees census operations for Florida and six other states.
Due to a mistrust of the government and concerns about confidentiality, these populations may be hesitant to respond to the census, Stephens said.
Stephens said the bureau has been working to spread the word about the census in traditionally undercounted communities.
“(Our) partners in Florida have really been really active in getting the word out,” she said.
Another contributing factor to undercounts may be certain Trump administration policies which some say discourage noncitizens from participating in the count. The president advocated for a citizenship question on the census and has pushed to exclude undocumented immigrants from the census numbers used to allocate House seats.
Norma Henning, government affairs coordinator for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Florida, said many nonprofits feared their census education efforts would be cut short when the bureau proposed a Sept. 30 deadline.
“Every nonprofit organization had to go into hyperdrive to try to fulfill their goals," she said.
Enterprising Latinas in Wimauma has been sending information about the census through its various communication channels and offering help filling out forms. President Elizabeth Gutierrez said it’s important to educate people about civic engagement beyond just voting.
“Civic engagement is a lot more than that,” she said.
In St. Petersburg, the 8 Kings Collective has been working with the Community Development and Training Center, Inc. to promote the census in the city’s predominantly Black communities. On Tuesday, the group sent 12 volunteers into neighborhoods to help people complete the census, and is planning to continue to send volunteers in two shifts per day. Despite the extended deadline, the group plans to maintain its momentum.
“We’re still working like we only have six days,” said group member Harold Bryant Jr. “Now we have 31 more days to keep counting.”
An accurate count will help ensure fair funding for these communities, members of the group said.
“Ultimately as Black people, we’re asking for equity,” said Anthony Williams, a member of the organization. “And in the midst of asking for equity, we need to all be counted.”
Santos, of the American Statistical Association, expressed similar thoughts.
“If you don’t get a fair and accurate census, it can contribute to institutional and systemic racism,” he said. “Because, for example, if you take communities of color ... and they are allowed to be undercounted heavily, they’re not getting the resources they deserve.”
How to complete the census
To respond online, go to https://my2020census.gov/.
To complete the census via phone in English, call 844-330-2020 between 7 a.m. and 2 a.m. Eastern Time. To respond in Spanish call 844-468-2020 between 7 a.m. and 2 a.m. Eastern Time. You can also complete the census in another language by calling one of the numbers listed on the census bureau website.
It is also possible to complete the census via mail. The bureau began mailing questionnaires to households in mid-April. They can be completed using blue or black ink and returned in the envelope provided. The bureau will never request money, donations, your complete Social Security number, bank account information, credit card numbers or action for a political party.
More information about responding to the census via mail can be found on the agency’s website.