Cordova delivers historically low census response

Cordova, Alaska. (Sept. 7, 2020) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

Less than half of Cordova households participated in the 2020 census, according to preliminary figures published by the Census Bureau. Throughout the census, Cordova’s participation lagged behind state and national levels, delivering a local response rate of 49.4 percent, compared to 61.2 percent in 2010 and 63 percent in 2000.

Cordova’s reported results may change if additional mail-in responses postmarked by Oct. 15 and received by Thursday, Oct. 22 are counted.

The city’s census effort was marred by miscommunications that left both respondents and census workers uncertain who had participated and who hadn’t. Some residents said they participated online only to later receive notice that their response hadn’t been recorded, while others reported being asked to fill out the census multiple times using different addresses. Proposals to set up an in-person census-taking booth at the Cordova Center were unsuccessful mostly due to coronavirus concerns, officials said.

“This is disappointing but indicative of the impact COVID-19 has had on collecting information for the census,” City Manager Helen Howarth wrote in an email.

Howarth said that some difficulties were due to census mailers being addressed to community members’ residences despite the fact that most mail in Cordova is received via PO boxes. She also noted persistent reports from residents who said that they had been told by census representatives that their online responses had not been recorded.

“Will that low response rate impact us?” Howarth wrote. “Yes, but we will have to wait to see in what ways.”

Cordova’s 49.4-percent response rate compares to a statewide response rate of 54.7 percent and a national response rate of 67 percent. Alaska had the lowest participation rate of any state, but came in ahead of the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. Within Alaska, urban centers showed the highest participation rates, with Juneau and Anchorage heading the list. Small coastal communities delivered some of the weakest numbers, with the town of Kasaan returning the state’s lowest response rate of 12.5 percent.

Of the Cordova households that responded, about 57.9 percent responded online and about 42.1 percent responded by mail or by phone, or were counted in person by census workers.

Counting efforts ended in the early morning hours of Oct. 16, Alaska Daylight Time, following a series of legal disputes over the census deadline, which was extended from July 31 due to the coronavirus pandemic. A mid-October deadline was announced after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Trump administration, which argued that a later deadline would not leave the Census Bureau sufficient time to meet the Dec. 31 due date for returning congressional seat apportionment numbers. However, in a dissenting opinion, Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor said that minority groups would “disproportionately bear the burden of any inaccuracies” caused by the accelerated census deadline.

As the deadline approached, organizers and activists worked to boost response rates.

“Our phone banking team scrambled to put together one final push,” Esperanza Guevara, the census campaign manager for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, told the Associated Press.

The Census Bureau initially scheduled five months to process data gathered by the census, weeding out duplicate responses and filling in missing information. However, a mid-October data collection deadline leaves less than three months for this kind of processing. It is possible that Congress will approve legislation to extend the apportionment deadline from Dec. 31, 2020 to the end of April 2021 to provide the bureau more time for processing.