March 29, 2010 | Richmond Times Dispatch | Original Article

Everyone not falling in line with 2010 census

Laura Alcorn mailed her 2010 census form, but not with all the details sought by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Angry about what she views as increasing government intrusion in the personal lives of citizens, the Short Pump resident provided only the number of people in her household and their names. She ignored all other questions, including ones that requested her phone number, the gender, age and race of each resident, and whether her home is owned or rented.

"Everything else, I just made a squiggle line through," said Alcorn, a tea-party activist. "I think they are overreaching in what they're asking. . . . I think it's an invasion of my privacy."

Census 2010 is under way -- and participation is required by law -- but not everyone is falling in line.

Resistance to the census -- like a refusal to pay taxes -- is not a new phenomena, but it is becoming increasingly potent in the sharply divided national political environment, said Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

Some people question the government's need for personal information, while others do not understand how they'll benefit from providing it or are leery of the Census Bureau's promise of confidentiality, for example, if they have immigrated to the country illegally or face outstanding criminal warrants.

"I think it's more intense than I've seen it before," Sabato said of concerns about the census. "People are deeply skeptical and cynical. I don't think there's any justification for being skeptical or cynical, and it's the law" to provide all information requested for the census.

While the national Libertarian Party sees concerns about the census on the rise, the office of Sen. Mark R. Warner, D-Va., said it isn't hearing them from constituents.

"They're contacting us about health care and Wall Street reform, not the census," said Warner spokesman Kevin Hall, who encouraged residents to submit their census forms in full.

Alcorn said the census has strayed from its original purpose. She cites Article 1, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution, which says the population shall be counted every 10 years for the apportionment of members of the House of Representatives and the disbursement of taxes -- now totaling more than $400 billion per year.

However, census officials said federal law requires a response to the census and that all questions be answered.

"If a household reports the number of persons only, the form must be treated as incomplete and the Census Bureau will send a census taker to collect the full information on the form," Census Bureau Director Robert M. Groves wrote in his blog for the 2010 census.

Sabato said the irony is that some of the people who may withhold information, citing privacy concerns, are also ones who complain about the rising costs of government.

"What are they doing? They're driving up the costs of government because the census worker is going to have to come to their home personally to get all the questions answered," he said.

Census officials also point out that a complete and accurate count ensures proper representation in Congress and distribution of federal aid.

"If you want that fair share of that pie, you should make sure you're counted," said Tammie McGee, a Virginia spokeswoman for the Census Bureau. She said the 10 questions on this year's form make it one of the shortest and least intrusive forms since the first census in 1790.

"In reality, you are going to give out more information filling out a credit-card application than you will on this form," McGee said.

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli is encouraging participation in the census but said people should exercise caution if they're visited by a census worker.

Residents "should always look for identification from census takers before opening the door. Census Bureau employees will be clearly identified with a badge, a hand-held device, a Census Bureau canvas bag and a confidentiality notice," said Brian Gottstein, Cuccinelli's director of communication. "Census employees will not request Social Security numbers, credit-card or banking information, or donations.

"They might ask for basic financial information, such as salary range, but participants are legally allowed to refuse to answer these questions if they do not feel comfortable giving out that information."

Most of the country's 120 million households started receiving their 2010 census forms in mid-March, so it's difficult to assess whether privacy or other concerns are keeping people from completing the paperwork.

In 2000, 73 percent of the households in Virginia mailed in their forms, forcing census workers to follow up on the remaining 27 percent. So far, the participation rate for Virginia is 34 percent, compared with the national average of 29 percent.

This Thursday, April 1, is Census Day, meaning the information provided on the forms is supposed to be accurate as of that date.

Michel Zajur, co-chair of the Virginia Latino Complete Count Committee, said volunteers are working hard to inform members of the Hispanic community why they should fill out the form, when many are fearful and don't understand the national count.

"We have talked to people and told them that the information is not going to immigration [authorities]," he said.

Zajur said the Rev. Miguel Rivera, founder and president of the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders, which claims 16,000 churches in its group, continues to encourage people through his Spanish language radio show to boycott the census to pressure the federal government to overhaul the immigration system. Zajur said it's hard to say how much people are heeding the message.

Leni Gonzalez of Arlington, who co-chairs the Latino committee with Zajur, said there will always be people who are fearful of the government finding out where they live or that they may have more people than allowed living in a dwelling.

"But we are working hard so people trust this census issue and that they feel comfortable filling out the forms," she said.

Alcorn said she's refused to answer certain questions in prior censuses but is more adamant this year. She said she considered ripping up the form before her husband persuaded her to submit it partially complete.

The Libertarian Party is objecting to the personal information being requested on the form but is not officially encouraging supporters to submit incomplete forms because of the laws and potential penalties in place, said Wes Benedict, executive director of the national party.

He said concerns about the census have increased since 2000 because the world and political environment have changed.

"Now, we've had all the terrorism and the wars, and the Patriot Act, so these privacy issues may be more on people's mind," he said. "I think there's more concern about the government snooping on us than there was 10 years ago."