2020 is just around the corner, and with the new decade comes a new United States Census. Preparation is already underway, and will increase in size and scope over the coming summer months — but it may be a bumpy ride.

Tuesday afternoon, the Senate Community and Regional Affairs Committee heard an update on the efforts now beginning to spark to life.

The dicennial census has come along way. The first took place in 1790, undertaken by just 16 U.S. marshals and about 700 assistants. Over 18 months, they compiled the nation’s first count: 3.9 million people. That archetypal accounting offered only one metric for diversity: a tally of “Free White males of 16 years and upward” used primarily for military purposes.

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Instead of marshals, the groundwork of the census is now conducted by “enumerators” – canvassers who will begin collecting data beginning in August and wrapping up in March 2021.

The U.S. Census is largely viewed by the public for its political implications. Whoever sits in the governor’s chair plays a major role in constitutionally mandated redistricting, by way of selecting two of the five members that serve on the redistricting board. The Senate president (an title currently held by Anchorage Republican Sen. Cathy Giessel) gets another selection. The speaker of the House (held by Bryce Edgmon, an independent from Diilingham who is part of the bipartisan House majority) is afforded another, and the Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court serves as the fifth.

Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy (R-Alaska) has made a few revisions to the census plan left by his predecessor, Gov Bill Walker (I-Alaska). Most notably, he adjusted how the body tasked with running census operations in state, the Alaska Complete Count Commission (ACCC), is assembled.

Walker called for the nine-member commission to include one representative from each of the following: the Department of Labor and Workforce Development; the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development; the Department of Health and Social Services; a Regional Healthcare Organization representative; an Alaska Municipal League member; a representative from a tribal organization as recommended by the Governor’s Tribal Advisory Council; and a representative from the Alaska Census Working Group. The latter would serve as chair. Two at-large public members would additionally serve.

Earlier this month, Dunleavy changed the selection process to include one representative from the governor’s office and three at-large public members. DLWD, DCCED, and DHS would retain one member apiece. The Municipal League representative has been replaced with “a mayor of a municipality in the state,” and the representative from a tribal organization has been replaced by “one representative of the Alaska Native community.”

Partisan politics may influence who ends up in the halls of Juneau, but the U.S. Census provides the foundational data they legislate according to. The census also represents far more immediate concerns for Alaska residents: over $375 billion in annual federal funding is tied to the data collection, $3.2 billion of which is allocated to Alaska.

“We don’t think about it very much of course, but, because all of our population estimates through the decade start with the census, countless other statistics are affected by it,” Eddie Hunsinger told the committee while flipping through a brief PowerPoint presentation.

Hunsinger serves as state demographer with the Department of Labor and Workforce Development, and is someone who appears to thoroughly enjoy his job.

He explained that the census results are “used directly in the development of health statistics, education statistics… employment statistics, our monthly unemployment rates, crime statistics; they’re used in planning and forecast tools for transportation, they’re used in housing statistics… and for small communities – and we have hundreds in Alaska, of course – the decennial census is often the only resource for reliable demographic and household characteristics. When someone calls me for data by age or by race for a small village in Alaska, I note the decennial census back in 2010 as the firm place to start if it’s possible.”

The information is crucial and, to the surprise of no one, Alaska is the hardest state in which to collect it. The challenges presented by Alaska’s incomparable size are compounded by the reality that the state also has features the least population density. In Senate District C, represented by committee chair Click Bishop (R-Fairbanks), one area turned in a 26 percent response rate in 2010 – one of the lowest in the country.

“And that’s on the road system,” Bishop noted.

Off the road system, in villages like Unalaska, King Cove, and Cold Bay, spanning the Aleutians and beyond, 100 percent of the areas are categorized as hard to count.

“This isn’t just a remote/rural issue,” Katie Sovic, from Cook Inlet Housing Authority, told committee members. It’s an urban issue too.

Parts of Alaska’s most populace region, within the boundaries of the Senate districts represented by committee members Elvi Gray-Jackson (D-Anchorage) and Mia Costello (R-Anchorage), offered a response rate of just 56 percent in 2010.

Language is also a significant barrier. The census survey is translated into 49 different languages, established by the criteria that at least 60,000 households, nationwide, speak a given language. No Alaska Native languages meet that requirement, thus no federally funded translations are offered.

“This is Alaska,” Gray-Jackson marveled. “That concerns me.”

“We’re putting effort in terms of the budget that we’ve outlined,” Sovic said. “It outlines translation and also local subgrants to local communities. But that requires resources to pay translators to do that work.”

These are just some of reasons as to why the 2010 census undercounted Alaskans by eight percent.

Alaska is subdivided into four different areas of enumeration in which the census survey is conducted. In two of them (“Update Leave” and “Self-Reponse”), materials are mailed or conducted by phone or via the internet. “Update Enumerate” is a third category extending to Alaskans who live on the road system but do not have a publicly listed home mailing address.

The vast majority of Alaska’s geography is covered by the fourth group, called “Remote Alaska.” This is where canvassers will be on the ground, verifying locations and going door to door, in some cases relying on a sworn-in local official to relay responses.

2020 will be the first census to strongly rely on internet responses, posing more threats to an accurate count. “There are barriers to connectivity,” Sovic cautioned. “That won’t be the case in all areas of Alaska, but it is something to consider when you think about broadband connectivity across the state.”

Alaska ranks 44th in the country for broadband access, according to BroadbandNow, a research group that tracks access nationwide. Remote areas will rely heavily on door-to-door canvassing. To many people, that also generally tends to be the least favorable part of the process.

“What you don’t want is for someone to first hear about the census when an enumerator shows up at their door,” Sovic conceded. “You want them to hear first about the census from a neighbor, a friend, at the local library, whatever the case may be. You want people to be aware about it and know that it’s important before they’re ready to be counted.”

The 35-day government shutdown earlier this year has made that initial contact unlikely.

“When you look at a graph of federal funding for the census – and if you talk to people who work on the census they’ll say the census isn’t a one year operation, it’s a ten year operation – and so you see a relatively flat-funding level to begin with and then it ramps up relatively quickly in the three or four years leading up to the census,” Sovic explained. “That ramp-up didn’t happen at the federal level in the same way that it happened in previous censuses. So, just in terms of raw, federal allocations, there’s been less to work with.”

Other states have used state funding to plug the gap and provide advance notice and surveys translated to languages with local constituencies. Alaska is in no position to follow suit. Communication materials usually supplied by the federal government won’t be sent out until later this year.

“What we care about is getting the count right in the first place, so we’d like to encourage all members of the senate and the house to educate your constituents on the importance of the count in your districts,” said Laurie Wolf, president and CEO of the Foraker Group, who also serves on the Alaska Census Working Group. “We encourage the State to bring together resources to help get the word out.”

The Alaska Census Working groups has plans. We have a comprehensive budget that will take us through 2020. We’re talking about where we can add the most value and how can we help mobilize and be a compliment to your work. We think we need a comprehensive communication campaign really focused on the hardest-to-count parts of our state. We’re going to use all of our resources, including social media and public broadcasting and our small post office box outreach. We’ll work on translation of census materials, we hope, into our Alaska Native languages. We hope to offer a mini-grant program to help communities do their own outreach. We have lots of ideas, but we cannot do it alone.

“We need the State to step up and do your part,” Wolf concluded. “There is so much at stake for all of us – 3.2 billion reasons every year why we should care about this.”

This article brought to you by The Proclaimers’ “500 Miles”

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