The U.S. census represents the largest peacetime mobilization of the federal government. It is a massive task in the best of years.

But this is 2020, and the coronavirus pandemic is challenging the census just like it is challenging everything else. In-person counting got off to a late start and remains behind, complicated by the growing number of COVID-19 cases nationwide. If census workers are not given the time they need, the once-a-decade effort to count every person living in the United States will come up lacking.

However, the Trump administration, which originally asked for more time, is instead shutting the count down early. It will hurt Maine more than nearly every other state.

Census forms are mailed to every household. Completed forms can be submitted by mail, phone or, for the first time this year, online. An army of census workers then fans out to reach people face to face, concentrating on populations with historically low rates of response to the mailed forms.

In-person counting was supposed to begin in mid March, but the onset of the pandemic delayed it until last month, when the first counters hit the streets. A nationwide rollout is expected to start Aug. 11.

In April, the Census Bureau said it would need until Oct. 31 to complete the count. Now it says in-person interviews will end Sept. 30.


“It’s going to be impossible to complete the count in time,” one local census manager told NPR, which broke the story days before the Bureau owned up to it Monday.

Getting the count right is important. Census data are used to determine congressional seat allotment and electoral college votes. They help steer an estimated $1.5 trillion in federal spending, including Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start and school lunch funding.

And undercounts don’t fall on everyone evenly. A former Census Bureau director told a House committee last month that stopping the count early would end in an overrepresentation of the white non-Hispanic population, because people of color are often harder to reach.

The same can be said for people who live in rural parts of the country, in part because the Census Bureau does not send forms to post office boxes.

That helps explain why Maine is behind other states in responding to the census. The statewide rate as of Aug. 2 was 55%, compared to nearly 63% nationwide, good for 48th among the 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico.

At 50.7%, the response rate is worse in the more rural 2nd Congressional District. It is particularly low in the state’s western and Downeast counties, and the rate doesn’t get above 40% in Piscataquis and Franklin counties.


If that holds, the federal government will have incomplete view of who lives in Maine, where they live and what they need.

Simply put, as the federal government apportions funding and political power for the next decade, Maine will not get its fair share.

Mainers who haven’t responded yet should do so as soon as possible.

But it’s not just Maine we should worry about. The census should be as accurate as possible — and in 2020, that’s going to take a little longer than usual.

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