Census count to exclude overseas missionaries -- again

No change » Thousands abroad won't be tallied.
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They tried lawsuits and friendly meetings, letter writing and legislation, but in the end Utah's elected leaders made no headway in their nearly decade-long battle with the Census Bureau.

As a result, the nation's 2010 population count will exclude Mormon missionaries living overseas.

But the official tally will include federal employees, members of the military and those on merchant vessels who are not currently in the country.

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, considers this an outrage.

"The bottom line should still be fairness and accuracy," he said. "If we are currently counting some people abroad and not others, there is just no logic to that whatsoever."

Census officials counter this criticism by saying they have found no statistically sound and financially reasonable way to count every American abroad. They also defend the inclusion of the military and federal employees because they are overseas in the service of their nation.

Newly installed Census Director Robert Groves said he won't change the policy with the official count slated to take place in a mere eight months, but he did promise to reexamine the issue.

This isn't simply a quibble over statistics. The decennial population count is vitally important for states because a bigger population means more members of Congress and more tax money.

In the most recent Census, taken in 2000, Utah fell just 857 people short of receiving the last available U.S. House seat and this discrepancy in how Americans are counted overseas made all the difference.

North Carolina claimed that 435th seat in large part because of the state's military bases, such as the U.S. Army's Fort Bragg and the Marine Corps' Camp Lejeune.

The Census included the overseas military in 1970, 1990 and 2000 because of congressional pressure. The Bureau has made previous attempts to count all Americans abroad, but that population has never been used to apportion House seats.

Utah sued the Census in 2001 in an attempt to get that military count thrown out, saying it unfairly benefits a handful of states. The state's $1.2 million lawsuit made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which sided with the Bureau, saying it holds wide discretion on how to count the population.

The defeat didn't sit well with Utah's federal lawmakers, who dropped their fight against the military count and instead have pushed to expand the overseas tally to include all Americans -- missionaries, business executives, students studying abroad, aide workers and everyone else. They argued that Utah had about 11,000 Mormon missionaries abroad that should have been counted.

The Utah delegation was not alone. New York Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney got the Census to conduct a test in 2004 to determine the feasibility of counting Americans abroad, focusing on Mexico, France and Kuwait. The plan was to use the lessons learned in this trial to conduct a worldwide test in a few years.

But the first round didn't go so well.

"It was just a colossal failure," said Louis Kincannon, a former Census Bureau director under President Bill Clinton.

The Bureau printed 520,000 questionnaires and created a Web site for those who preferred to fill out the form online. But only 5,400 people responded, despite a publicity campaign that included giving forms to Mormon mission presidents.

A review by the Government Accountability Office said it would be "impractical" for the Census to conduct the broader worldwide test and suggested abandoning the effort.

Election Data Services, a consulting firm specializing in the Census, estimates that 6 million Americans are overseas. But the Census says there is no good way to determine how many were in each country or where they could receive the forms. And some people don't want to be found because they don't want to pay U.S. taxes.

The quality of data by country could vary drastically, which "could harm the stateside census," said former director Steve Murdock, in a letter to Bishop.

In the United States, the Census sends a brief questionnaire to every address and if it is not returned, the agency sends an army of temporary employees to go door-to-door to get as much information as possible. None of that would take place internationally.

"It would not begin to have any value to the knowledge about people living overseas or for use for redistricting," said Kincannon, who studied the 2004 test.

But Utah's lawmakers, led by Bishop began holding occasional meetings with Census officials, arguing they shouldn't reject expanding the overseas count simply because it wouldn't be perfect.

"If you count some, then the policy ought to be that you do your best to count them all," Bishop said.

The delegation discussed ways to boost the count and include members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, such as leaving "Be Counted" forms at embassies and consulates. Another idea was to rely on administrative records of major overseas organizations, faiths and businesses to count Americans and record which state they normally live in.

But leaders at the Census said that if Congress wanted them to count people overseas, then it needed to enact legislation requiring it.

In early June, Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, included a provision in a bill that would require the Secretary of State, Attorney General and the Census to study whether they could use passports to track people internationally. The legislation will have no impact on the 2010 Census.

And just two weeks later, Bishop and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, co-sponsored legislation that would require "Be Counted" forms at all embassies and a way for non-governmental organizations to submit administrative records.

Bishop says it is "almost impossible" for Congress to pass the bill in time. He said he didn't push legislation earlier because the Bureau can implement the suggestions without congressional action.

"They want to be beaten up before they do the right thing and that is what is so mind-boggling," Bishop said. mcanham@sltrib.com