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COMMENTARY: Don’t ignore the importance of census participation

The clock is ticking and time is winding down on the U.S. Census 2020. On Sept. 30 when the record hot summer is but a memory, the official count of people living in the United States will end. Iced drinks will be replaced by pumpkin lattes and Nevada’s official population count will be frozen in time with the number of people documented to be living here on April 1, 2020.

We will live with that number for a decade. It will determine how much money we get from the federal government for schools, higher education, care of the homeless, local governments, law enforcement, etc. The list goes on.

The official counting of our country’s population is not new and was never intended to be politicized. Indeed the enumeration of the citizenry is part of the U.S. Constitution. It was not an afterthought added by amendment. It is in Article 1, Section 2. The tradition of counting people dates back more than 2,000 years. Christians know that Mary and Joseph were on their way to be counted in a census when Jesus was born.

How it impacts Nevadans is evident in our representation in Congress. Fifty years ago, we had one member in the U.S. House, the legendary Walter Baring. Because of population increases documented by censuses taken since then, we have four representatives in the House.

This year’s count was thrown into chaos when the COVID pandemic began. The count was postponed from the spring until August, forcing census takers into the heat to track down the millions of people nationwide who had not responded online, via phone calls or by returning the census form they received in the mail way back when.

As taxpayers, we are all paying for the census count. The more people resist complying with this legal requirement to participate in the census, the more millions it costs. Census takers are relentlessly going back to the same addresses time and time again. They are rudely treated, sworn at with the most profane language and physically threatened.

Some residents who are undocumented fear participation, believing that the census data will be shared with immigration officials and they will be deported. They heard rumors in the spring that there was a census question about citizenship that would flag their status. That is false. It is based on a request by President Donald Trump that such a question be included on the census. There is no such question.

More recently census takers, known as enumerators, are encountering people claiming they have a First Amendment right not to answer the census questions. Nothing in the First Amendment supersedes the constitutional mandate that residents be counted.

The confidentiality of the census is enshrined in law. Violating the confidentiality of your responses is a federal crime with serious penalties, including a federal prison sentence of up to five years, a fine of up to $250,000 or both. Only authorized individuals have access to the stored data, and they are sworn for life to protect the confidentiality of your individual responses. Your answers cannot be used against you by any government agency or court.

The mandate for participation extends to the owners and managers of multiple housing units, such as apartments, condominiums and short-term rentals. Failure to assist in the census count can result in a fine of up to $5,000. The assistance of landlords is critical this year because the count is based on where people lived on April 1, not now. In many places, such as short-term rentals, the occupants on April 1 are often long gone. Knocking on doors to determine who lived there five months ago is pointless.

Thousands of Las Vegans have not completed the census. Each one represents money lost to our community for a decade to come. The Census Bureau has made participation easy. You can comply with the census law by completing the census online at my2020census.gov/ or by calling 844-330-2020. It takes less than 10 minutes. What are you waiting for?

— Mary Hausch is a census field supervisor working on completing the count in downtown Las Vegas. She is a former managing editor of the Review-Journal and professor of journalism at UNLV.

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