In The Moment: Episode 58

Gary Locke with Rich Smith—Census 2020: Why It Matters and What You Can Do


In this week’s interview, former WA Governor Gary Locke spoke with correspondent Rick Smith about the history and importance of the US Census. He traces the origins of the Census back to 1790, to the Constitution itself, and identifies ways the Census affects our nation—such as granting Washington a new congressional seat in 2010, as well as impacting distribution of federal funds. Smith addresses modern factors discouraging Americans from participating in the Census and underscores the protections and privacy measures in place to keep respondents safe.

Episode Transcript

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Welcome to in the moment a town hall Seattle podcast where we introduce you to folks coming to our stages by getting you familiar with their topic, personality and interests. I’m your host, Jini Palmer. Every 10 years our nation gets one chance to count its population. The data that’s collected determines the number of seats each state has in the house of representatives and is also used to allocate billions of federal tax dollars to local communities. There are several defining differences between the last census in 2010 and the 2020 census, including online forms and phone calls. Not to mention the current Corona virus outbreak and how that’s affecting the census. Bureau’s attempts to accurately gather that information. On March 16th town hall was scheduled to host an event with former governor Gary Locke, the honorary chair of the King County complete count committee, who is going to talk with a panel of experts about the critical role of the census and how it impacts us.

However, in lieu of the recent Corona virus outbreak in Seattle and mandatory measures taken by state officials, we’ve canceled this event, but not before our correspondent rich Smith, a staff writer at the stranger who focuses on local politics, books and performance. Sat down with Gary to talk about the census 2020 and what it means for all of us. All right, so governor lock. Before we talk about your important role in the census count, can you just tell me why the government needs to count everybody in the first place and what impact that has on our daily lives?

Uh, this is a practice, a account that has gone on ever since, uh, 1790, when George Washington was president. It’s built into our constitution where the government is required to do a count of all the people in the United States every 10 years. And actually the, the number of questions is very, very, uh, few, uh, this year. And in some ways almost the same number of questions as in 1790. Um, but, uh, it’s, it’s important for to two basic reasons. We count the population of America so that we can figure out how many States or how many members of Congress in each state and where. And as you divide up to state, uh, making sure that communities are accurately represented, accurately counted so they can be fully represented in the United States Congress. Based on the 2010 census, the state of Washington actually gained a new seat in the United States Congress.

Um, and because the number of members of Congress’s fixed, uh, 435 as our population in grows, each congressional district will have more members, more more residents. But in state Senate where the population has actually stayed flat or has decreased, that may mean that some of those States will actually lose a seat in Congress and some of them more faster. And the faster growing States will actually gain seats. So if we want full political empowerment, if either because we deserve our community is let’s say the state of Washington deserve extra representation. We want to make sure that we are entitled to our full political clout regardless of party, whether you’re Democrat, Republican, or independent. We want our voices to be counted, uh, in the halls of Congress on the issues we care about. At the same time, we want to make sure that we protect our voices.

And so, uh, we, we don’t want to be in an area where we might lose a seat in Congress. Um, and the census is also used by the state of Washington in determining the boundaries of the state legislature or the state legislature. We have 49 districts in the state of Washington. And if the Puget sound area is growing much faster than let’s say Eastern Washington, the Puget sound area might actually gain a new district in the state legislature. Um, and therefore the people of the Puget sound area will have even stronger voices in Olympia. Conversely, rural areas want to make sure they’re accurately counted so that they possibly, so they can avoid possibly losing a seat in the state legislature. And the second reason we want to be counted accurately is because so many federal and state dollars flow out to communities based on population. Um, the state of Washington receives currently about 2000, $300 per person per year based on population. Uh, whether it’s programs for seniors, uh, assistance for low income housing, uh, transportation dollars for highway repairs, road construction. A lot of that money going out to all of America is distributed on a population basis. So it’s important that we are fully and accurately counted so that we get our fair share of our taxpayer dollars going to the federal government and having it returned.

Uh, so this is the foundation of our representative government at the federal, state, and local levels. And it also determines, uh, how much, uh, money the federal government will allocate to vital services that we all need. Uh, you oversaw the census count in 2010. Uh, I, what are some major differences between filling out that census and filling out this one?

Well, the big, big difference, uh, for the 2010 census is that, uh, people will be able to go online, uh, to respond and not have to do it on paper. Uh, and you can also respond over the telephone. So we’ll starting next week, uh, and for the next week and a half, but starting next week, uh, households, residences, uh, we’ll start, we’ll get, start getting a postcard which will inform people of that toll free number to call to respond to the census or, uh, an online, an email address with, um, and each households, each Rez beach address will have a unique identifier. Uh, obviously we don’t want people, uh, you know, responding five times or each household, let’s say mom, dad, or daughter, resident, uh, um, family member each, each responding and saying, this is our home address and we’re filling out the census. So, you know, each, each residence will have one number or identifier and, um, they’ll use that, uh, to when they respond.

All right, well, so, um, they can fill it out online now. Seems to be the, the big change. Uh, what, uh, are there any protections that the government has implemented to make sure that those forms don’t get hacked or to, uh, provide some kind of a security or privacy in that way? Do you know?

Well, first of all, uh, there, there are enormous privacy protections, uh, over, uh, around the census. Um, census workers are not allowed, uh, are, are, you know, there are criminal penalties for census workers to reveal the information. Uh, the information is not shared under us law with any other agency. Um, everything is kept confidential. Um, and, uh, individual responses cannot be accessed I think for like 75 or 80 years. Um, but, uh, but in between, before then, everything is just an aggregate numbers, uh, without any type of personal identifiers. Uh, you know, there are X number of people living in Rainier Valley, uh, on this particular block there. The age, their age, they can make up their ethic. Ethnicity is, is, is such and such. Uh, gender, uh, breakout is such and such. Um, and, and that’s it. Um, these are in the most aggregate generalized terms. Um, but, uh, you cannot go and see what, how my dad filled out his census form in 1964, another 60 years.

Wow. Okay. Well, what happens if you don’t respond to the census? Is there a legal penalty? You

don’t respond to the census that technically legal penalties, but it’s never enforced. Um, um, and, uh, the census Bureau will hound residents and addresses several times sending out postcards, uh, several mailings, um, to urge people to fill out the census. Uh, now some households will get a written form, um, and they can fill it out on paper. Um, but, um, the census form the census will keep hounding you for the next several months. Um, and then after a while, uh, uh, starting around the end of April, 1st of May, we will actually, the census Bureau will actually send out people to go door to door, uh, to those addresses that have not yet responded either by telephone or by email or by written form.

Uh, I remember, uh, just sort of speaking of trying to get everybody included in this count, that the scent, the goal of the census is to count every head in the country. Right. And I remember earlier in the year, or maybe it was last year, there being some talk of adding a citizenship question on the census and some people were nervous that that would, um, uh, prevent or, uh, undocumented immigrants from, uh, filling out the census for fear that they might be, uh, found out. Uh, is that citizenship a question on the, on the census?

Nope. That citizenship question is not on the census.

And you’re saying that, um, the information in the census won’t be shared with other agencies and that might offer some more protections to, um, people who fear that the information might be shared with, uh, eyesore, the border patrol or any of those kinds of, uh, agencies.

Yes. And then that of course, was the big fear among many groups. Uh, when the, uh, Trump administration was proposing to include the citizenship question, even though even though, uh, the information still could not be shared with other law enforcement agencies, whether FBI or ice or a border patrol, et cetera, et cetera, um, nonetheless, the, the prospect of that question put a lot of fear and trepidation into many group, um, groups that are already hard to count, uh, reluctant to and suspicious, suspicious of government are not used to being, not used to having these types of participating in a census. And so, um, uh, the fear of that citizenship question, even according to the census Bureau was going to result in a lower participation, uh, lower responses, uh, fewer responses to the census form or to the census, uh, effort. And that’s why the tech, the, the career professionals within the census Bureau were adamantly opposed to the inclusion of that citizenship question. Ultimately, the U S Supreme court blocked, uh, the inclusion, uh, any type of citizenship question. And, and, uh, basically, uh, uh, saying that the administration’s justifications for that were all fabricated and politically motivated.

So those residents should, um, should have no fear. And, uh, respond to the postcard accordingly.

Uh, that’s correct. Uh, there’s absolutely, uh, there’s, uh, um, all their information is confidential. Uh, and, uh, there is no citizenship question, uh, on the, uh, census, uh, form, uh, and um, uh, but nonetheless, we still know that there are many communities that are still suspicious of the census, which is why so much of the effort, um, on the complete count committee, whether it’s for the entire state of Washington King County or even city of Seattle, is to really work with community based organizations and faith based leaders, uh, trusted voices within the community. Uh, because no matter how much, um, a Senator or a mayor, um, uh, an administration official, whether it was president Obama or myself as commerce secretary in 2010, um, we’re urging people to fill out the census. We were still government officials. Uh, but when you have the minister of your church saying, no, this is important, your information is confidential. Uh, these are the benefits to our community in terms of receiving our fair share of, of tax dollars coming back to our community or empowering our communities. Um, uh, with our, with representation in the halls of Congress or in the state legislature, those have much more impact. Just why all of our efforts have really been focusing on, uh, working with community based groups, uh, to get the word out about the importance of, of the responding to the census.

So that’s your role as a honorary chair of that King County complete count committee to help organize some of those local groups to get the word app. Which group in your experience has been the hardest to reach and what strategies have you used to reach them?

Well, a lot of immigrant groups, uh, who are unfamiliar with English language, uh, uh, where English is not the primary language, which recent immigrant groups, um, uh, ethnic groups, uh, who have feel, felt perhaps disenfranchised and from government, uh, for, for a period of time. Um, um, even senior citizens, uh, uh, are sometimes hard to count because they might be, let’s say in a nursing home or in a group home, a retirement home, and, uh, they may not get actual form in their mail box. Um, it’s really up to these group living or, uh, facilities to actually do the count. And so, um, we’re always worried that they may be missed. Um, and even sometimes students, um, uh, parents may not include them. Technically the parents are not supposed to include them on the survey and the colleges or universities are supposed to be conducting the counts, uh, because it’s, where are you primarily living? Um, April one, uh, what is, what is your main residence on April one? So,

so do they send like an Intrepid, uh, census Bureau workers out to these groups to, uh, and to those organizations to remind them on a monthly basis to fill out these forms? Or how do, what does that process look like?

Well, the, the, the census Bureau, um, hires people, uh, to, uh, get the word out and to meet with community groups. Um, and they, they, they try to locate all these, for instance, uh, adult living homes or retirement homes or nursing homes, uh, and, uh, they’re trying to work with this, the staffs, uh, of all these different facilities so that the facilities are actually doing the count. Not that we have a census taker that goes out to the retirement or to the nursing home. Um, but it’s that getting that we’re out, that, uh, that these larger facilities are supposed to be doing the count, uh, and then the colleges so that each dormitory is counting. Um, and that’s, that’s a tough undertaking.

Yeah, it must be,

but in the end, but in the end, if people don’t fill out the online survey, if they don’t call it in, and if they don’t fill out a form for those who receive the form in the mail. And after repeated reminders, a starting around may one, uh, the census Bureau will send people door to door. And these are people who are, um, you know, several hundred thousand people will be hired on a part time basis to go, uh, knocking door to door.

Wow. Okay. That’s, do they wear special census clothes so that you can distinguish them from [inaudible]

special badges? They’ll have special badges and uh, ID and, uh, uh, folks, uh, if there, if someone, uh, folks who are answering the door, if there’s a somewhat suspicious or want verification, they should not hesitate to, uh, see and, and ask or should not hesitate to ask, uh, to see the ID.

The West coast, many West coast cities and cities across the country are dealing with a, a homelessness crisis, a thousand sleeping on the streets, sleeping in their cars and trailers. They might be hard to identify. Does the census Bureau have a plan for reaching those people?

Yes, they do. Um, uh, there is a, there will be a very specific date, um, in which, uh, on which, uh, uh, homeless population will be counted. Um, and the census takers are actually working with the cities and towns and the, and the various nonprofit organizations that work with the homeless, uh, to coordinate that because obviously, um, as, as the homeless move around, let’s say in the Seattle area, let’s say they might be in a tent, um, under the freeway one night and the next night they might be in a shelter. Um, so if you spread this out over several days, you may actually double count of people. Uh, and so, um, there, there’s a lot of effort working with nonprofit organizations, uh, homeless advocates, uh, and local governments to identify, uh, where the homeless might be living, uh, on a particular set of days. And then, um, they go out on one particular day to really try to get it as complete account as possible.

We’re, I’m in the middle of a Corona virus outbreak, uh, as we’re talking. Is that making your life harder? Is that, is that making your life harder and making these efforts harder in some way?

Well, in fact, uh, we have a, uh, a meeting that was scheduled for this coming Tuesday. Uh, uh, Washington state complete count committee, which I actually chair and we’ve been holding these meetings, uh, about once every, a month and a half. Um, working with, for instance, uh, business groups, Hispanic groups, native American groups, NAACP, refugee groups, representatives, the colleges, universities, superintendent, public instruction. Um, my gosh, uh, I think, uh, the association of counties association of cities, um, and a small business Bureau, uh, you know, small chambers, uh, things like that. And just figuring out how we can coordinate, share best practices, um, share flyers, give out templates so that people don’t have to reinvent things, suggested letters that can be put into, uh, the news, uh, suggested language that can be put into the newsletters of organizations so that people just don’t have to reinvent this and can actually build off of the, the collective efforts and wisdom of, of so many other, so many of these groups that are involved in it as well as information, uh, uh, disseminated by the census Bureau itself.

So we’ve been having these meetings. In fact, we were about to have a meeting this Tuesday and just before you called, I was on the conference call with the, uh, with the state, uh, coordinator for the census and we decided that given the Corona virus and what the governor and County officials are recommending, we’re not going to hold our big meeting. Uh, we’re not sure that the press would’ve shown up anyway. We wanted to highlight the purpose was to actually highlight, uh, some of the efforts and the unique efforts of the different community based organizations. Um, and also because given the, the admonition to avoid being in large groups, we felt that, uh, it would be, um, somewhat inconsistent for us to be holding a meeting. So we’re actually going to do it online and what we’re going to do by Skype or zoom or zoom or whatever, uh, video conferencing. Uh, but, uh, the topic that we are going to focus on this coming Tuesday instead of showcasing the displays and the efforts of different community groups and organizations, um, is what are the challenges to a complete count given the Corona virus, um, over the next month and a half?

Yeah, I can imagine a strategy centered on people going into nursing homes, people going into churches, um, uh, and, and, and being in contact with a lot of, uh, people might present, uh, challenges. I imagine you’ll talk about some kind of safety measures for census workers who do that? Or do you have any idea what,

no, we’re actually, actually, we’re going to be focusing on how, how can a community organization, which was, let’s say, planning on having, let’s say, a census fair or a census booth at a fair or at a community gathering or in the church. Uh, how can you still get your message out to your community members or to the members of the community if people aren’t attending these public events or going to these public gatherings, whether it’s church, uh, or whether it’s, um, you know, uh, uh, um, the street fair, um, whether it’s a street fair and Rainer Valley, uh, or a street fair in the international, uh, Chinatown district. Um, so what strategies should these community organizations be devising or implementing? Just still get the word out to the members of their community. Um, do they switch from having a little fair street fairs and booths to advertisements in their newspapers, uh, that are delivered community newspapers? Do we need to redeploy resources into that and we need to, um, rely on email, you know, contacts and messages out to everybody. Um, um, so all the members of their organization and followers, contributors, supporters of their organization, you know, just mass flooding, uh, you know, everyone’s email addresses or mailing lists, you know, email lists. Um, so that’s what the meeting on Tuesday is gonna is going to turn into.

I see. Well, speaking of things

that make your life much more difficult or make the lives of census takers much more difficult, there’s often a lot of census scams that, uh, come come out around this time. And especially switching to a, uh, or offering in addition to the, uh, IRL formats. There’s all, you know, an, uh, a digital format. Uh, I can imagine fishing expeditions, I could imagine ads that look like a census form but really aren’t a census form. What can people do? What should people be looking for to make sure they’re actually filling out a census? Um, rely on the postcard that comes from the census Bureau, uh, that, uh, gives you a unique identifier and, um, and go onto that website and respond. And if the, if, if in any way, if, if the website, any website, any, um, mail that you get, uh, whether it’s, you know, snail mail or email that says, uh, uh, make a contribution or we need your social security number or we need your income, uh, information, then that’s automatically a scam. The census form a question does not ask anything about, so does not ask for social security number, does not ask for income. Uh, information does not ask, uh, you to donate. Uh, uh, uh, and so anything that, that wants additional, any type of financial information, uh, social security information, bank information, um, request a donation, all that scams, that’s a scam.

Since, uh, you know, some, some organizations right now, I mean, there’s, I think there’s something in the newspaper or in the news today about, uh, a political organization saying, uh, you know, help us with the census and, uh, respond to this. Um, and they’re asking actually inviting you to make a donation to a political campaign that is not part of the census.

Yeah, I saw that and I’m concerningly that was related to, um, I think a political campaign, um, that helps the president’s reelection. And so even though it’s a political ad, um, it might not have anything to do with the census at all. The ad in question is one that a ad in question had the word or asked users to take a census, but really it was just, uh, uh, an ad. Yep. All right. So we’ve got to look, be on the lookout for that. Uh, let’s say that we are an engaged, uh, population who wants our voice to be represented accurately in the halls of Congress and in the state houses. What else can we do to make your job easier?

Uh, talk to your friends and neighbors and, and, uh, ask them whether or not they filled out the census and let them know, uh, talk to them about how it’s important, uh, to have our voices heard. Um, because, um, if people don’t accurately, if we don’t have an accurate count, um, let’s say parts of Seattle are undercounted than parts of Seattle may actually lose a, uh, a seat in the state legislature or the boundaries will be made so large that your community’s voices are diluted.

So you would suggest maybe if you’re at church or something, looking around, you’ve got a few minutes before the sermon, uh, turn to your neighbor and say something like, wow, I really have you filled out the census.

It’s only, it’s only like seven or eight questions. It’s so easy,

right? Fast to fill out. Or if you’re in line at the grocery store and people are bored, you could turn to your neighbor and say, man, you hear about the census going around as in, it’s so great to take a short, easy to use census. Yeah. All right. Great. Well thank you so much for your time, governor lock. Oh my appreciate. I appreciate it.

Thank you. To find out more information about your rights and the census in Seattle, go to census Thank you for listening to episode 58 of in the moment. Our theme music comes from the Seattle based band, EBU, and Seattle’s own Barsac records. You can listen to our full town hall produced programs and speakers on our arts and culture, civics and science series, podcasts, and you can also watch a whole library of content on our YouTube channel. Just search Townhall Seattle and subscribe to support town hall. Become a member or see our updated calendar of events. Check out our website at town hall, until next time, thank you for joining us right here in the moment.

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