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The accuracy of the 2020 census should be of paramount importance to Maryland where a failure to count all residents could cost taxpayers millions in federal spending.
The accuracy of the 2020 census should be of paramount importance to Maryland where a failure to count all residents could cost taxpayers millions in federal spending. (Richard B. Levine/Sipa USA/TNS)

Recently, House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones dispatched a letter to Maryland Department of Planning Secretary Robert S. McCord raising concerns that the state is ill-prepared for the 2020 census. Her concerns may be justified. It appears the process of marketing and outreach, of providing grants to local government, of preparing a media campaign is, at best, a bit behind schedule. That the Hogan administration hired a new census director on Jan. 23 obviously contributes to Speaker Jones’ unease. “It is critical,” she wrote, “that the executive branch takes the Census seriously and be held accountable to the residents.”

We might be inclined to give Secretary McCord the benefit of the doubt on this except, as Delegate Jones and others in the General Assembly have observed, the state has 10 years to get this right, and the stakes are high. Nationwide census readiness has already come under stiff criticism from the NAACP which earlier this month filed suit against the U.S. Census Bureau on the grounds that preparations are “conspicuously deficient." The Maryland-based civil rights group believes the Trump administration would be perfectly content to undercount communities of color, particularly to water down their political clout through the legislative district drawing process. The bureau has denied this but has acknowledged the government is hiring fewer outreach workers than 10 years ago, but only on the grounds that technology has changed the nature of the work.

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We are not inclined to believe Gov. Larry Hogan seeks to deliberately undercount minority groups in Maryland. That would make no sense. The fewer people who are counted, the less money the state will receive in formula funding from the federal government. Just like his Democratic predecessors, the Republican governor has an incentive to maximize payments from Washington. And as for for drawing congressional districts, that remains a process that goes through the General Assembly. If lawmakers fail to adopt a redistricting plan, the governor gets his way. But given Democratic majorities in both chambers, that’s a highly improbable scenario. So even if a Republican governor wanted to mess with census results to justify more GOP-friendly apportionment, the political payoff would be virtually nonexistent.

What’s more worrisome is the possibility this important government function has simply gotten insufficient or inexpert attention from individuals unaccustomed to supervising a statewide head count. That may well include Lorena Rivera, the woman appointed last Thursday as Maryland’s census director. She previously served Governor Hogan as administrative director of the Governor’s Commission on Hispanic Affairs. Ten years ago, Secretary McCord was county attorney in Harford County. That does not add up to a lot of first hand experience with census supervision.

A recent report from the Department of Planning to the General Assembly’s budget committees claims the state is the envy of the nation is census readiness. “Maryland is leading the nation in Census preparedness,” the report cheerfully concludes. Mr. McCord insists matters are safely on schedule and even suggested to The Sun’s Pamela Wood that launching outreach of the April census too early can lead to “census fatigue” and people losing interest in filling out their forms when the proper time comes around. Yet a quick review of this newspaper’s reporting of a decade ago found articles about census hiring at Maryland’s nine local census offices (including two in Baltimore) at this point in January. Four have been opened by the U.S. Census Bureau (with just one downtown) as of today. Perhaps, the administration will argue that Speaker Jones has unwisely contributed to “fatigue” by drawing public attention to the census, but it’s more likely that she’s caught some self-satisfied folks underestimating the challenge of census outreach in low-income, transient neighborhoods that are often quite difficult to draw an accurate bead on.

Given the importance of the numbers, it’s far better to be safe than sorry. If consumer fatigue was truly a thing, then mass-market advertisers like Comcast, Verizon, Walt Disney, General Motors (and let’s not forget Michael Bloomberg with his quarter-billion in presidential campaign ads) are working hard against their own self-interests. Dozens of federal programs from Head Start to Medicare to transportation aid are tied to census results giving Maryland hundreds of millions of reasons to be accurate. In one year alone, such formulas account for at least $675 billion in spending nationwide. Keeping Maryland’s fair share of those tax dollars is surely worth the risk of seeming tiresome or repetitive to residents of this state. Maryland doesn’t need to lead the nation in bureaucratic machinations or chest-pounding, it just needs an accurate head count.

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