MML#1 – The Census Goes Digital: What Communities Need to Know

MML#1 – The Census Goes Digital: What Communities Need to Know

(Crystal A. Proxmire, Oct. 2, 2019)

Detroit, MI – Elected officials collectively gasped when they learned that the 2020 Census would be done almost exclusively online and by telephone.

Bridgitte Wyche McGee, a Partnership Coordinator with the US Census Bureau, spoke to elected officials and city administrators at the Michigan Municipal League Annual Convention in Detroit last week. Her aim is to encourage cities to promote the Census so there can be an accurate count.

The Census is conducted every ten year, and the results are used to set electoral districts as well as in the allocation of federal funds.

For the first time ever, the Bureau is relying on members of the public to go online or call in to share information about those who reside in their household.

There will be follow ups to homes that do not participate.

“We’ll be 90% paperless,” Wyche McGee said, with exceptions being made for some rural areas that lack internet service. Everyone else, however, will receive a post card that will direct them to the Census website and an 800 number to call so they can answer the Census’ nine questions.

The invitation will be mailed March 12-20, and the website will accept responses beginning March 20.

The Bureau is asking local governmental bodies to help spread the word. “Complete Count Committees” of local volunteers will be tasked with promoting the Census in areas with traditionally low response rates.

“We need you to be the trusted voice to educate the community and engage them in the Census,” Wyche McGee said.

Lower income communities tend to have a lower response rate. Committees are in the works for areas with less than 80% response rate.

Hazel Park Mayor Mike Webb and Councilperson Bethany Holland were among those at the presentation.

“We already know that many of our residents don’t have computers and aren’t tech savvy,” Webb said. “Our seniors, who are a good part of our population, aren’t online.”

Holland also noted that a lot of people are leery of sharing information online or over the phone.

Officials from cities across the state echoed those sentiments.

“I don’t see people going online or using the phone for this,” said Southfield Mayor Ken Siver.

A recent Pew Research study looked at technology adoption across income levels. They found that 29% of adults with household incomes below $30,000 a year do not own a smartphone. In that income level, 44% do not have home broadband service, and 46% lack a traditional computer.

In the middle income range ($30,000-$99,999), technology adoption increases, with 85% owning a smartphone, 83% having a desktop or laptop computer, 81% having broadband, and 55% owning a tablet. At over $100,000 computer, smart phone, and broadband ownership are over 94%.

Residents can go online at public libraries or answer the questions by phone.

Questions came up regarding cities ability to assist residents in going online or making the call. Wyche McGee said they could not fill out forms for people, only assist them in ways that could not influence the person answering.

When asked who made the decision to go paperless, Wyche McGee said it was voted upon by Congress and approved by the President.

According to, the Bureau is expecting that 60 million people will fail to respond when they are first contacted. The article talks about the other technology involved, including how those following up will have digital maps and directions that will save time and money. The Bureau is hiring about half as many people as they did in 2010 in anticipation of the efficiencies. The article shares concerns such as the potential for hacking, and potential misinformation campaigns that might turn people away from participation. Other concerns are people using the Census as a guise for phishing schemes and spoof websites, and how to deal with those who have unsecured computers or phones. They pointed to the debacle where the site was unable to handle the amount of traffic, and the challenges Australia had with their online census. Wired also reported that full tests of the process in rural areas had been cancelled due to lack of funding.

Yet there are also efficiencies that come with the modern Census, and the world is becoming distinctly more digital. Field workers in 2010 had 17 million pages of paper maps and 50 million paper questionnaires. Smartphone applications are reducing this need, and making routes more efficient. It also means results are easily added. Regardless of the challenges, local governments that invest in helping their residents participate are likely to fare better than those who are passive or dismissive.

“It’s important that everyone gets counted,” Wyche McGee said. “I tell people there are 675 billion reasons.”

$675 billion is the amount allocated to states based on population.

“We want to make sure we get our fair share,” she said. “We have to live with these numbers for the next ten years.”

She recommended that all cities consider where they can promote the Census, such as including announcements in water bills and newsletters and having info tables at community events.

In another MML presentation, Rochester Hills Mayor Bryan Barnett encouraged municipalities to invest in promotional materials. In 2000, Rochester Hills was one of the five lowest reporting cities in Oakland County. In 2010 the City allocated $10,000 for lawn signs and other advertising.

Some criticized the expenditure at first, Barnett said, but that $10,000 investment resulted in $4.5 million returned to the city,” he said.

Officials in Oakland County also had a session with Census representatives and the Oakland County Complete Count Committee was formed. County Commissioner Janet Jackson is the Chair and Angela Powell is the Vice Chair. Members are:

(1) Designee from the Oakland County Clerk/Register of Deeds Office – Sandra O’Brien

(1) Designee from the Executive Office – Danny Riley Jr.

(1) Citizen representing the faith community – Rev. Dr. Rodney N. Tolbert, Sr. PhD

(1) Citizen representing the education community – Dr. Wanda Cook-Robinson

(2) Citizens representing local government – Dianne Scheib-Snider and Debra Medley

(1) Citizen representing minority groups – Debra Ehrmann

(1) Citizen representing community groups – Adrienne Ziegler

“2020 Census response methods will include online options. Complete Count activities will increase promotion and education among lower income and senior communities, as these groups typically have lower online engagement and computer access,” Jackson said in an email to Oakland County Times. “The complete Count Committee will engage trusted voices by including representatives from within typically hard to reach communities to reach people at grass-root levels to help deliver the message where people live.”

A press release about the Committee states “Census data determines the boundary lines of federal, state and county legislative districts, and how billions of dollars in federal and state funds are distributed. These funds pay for critical programs around health, education, transportation, child and elder care, emergency preparedness and more. Researchers estimate that for every person not counted, communities lose approximately $1,800 in federal funding each year.”

To learn more about the Census, visit


This article is part of a series about the Michigan Municipal League’s 2019 Convention that took place in Detroit Sept. 25-27. We will be sharing articles from the convention over the next few weeks to help readers better understand the issues local governments face. If you aren’t already on our list for Daily Headlines, please sign up HERE so you won’t miss any of this exciting and informative series! Find other MML related articles HERE.

For more on Michigan Municipal League, check out their website at

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