Census Participation: 'How Can They Know?'

04/13/2010 02:52 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Mark Blumenthal Mark Blumenthal is the Head of Election Polling at SurveyMonkey.

A press briefing on Monday by Census Director Robert Groves produced an Associate Press report that focused on the overall participation rate and lack of signs of any conservative boycott, but also provoked a very strange response from conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh. Here's the lead of the AP story:

Census Bureau director Robert Groves said Monday he is heartened by the high level of participation so far in the 2010 census, with no indications that large numbers of conservatives were only partially filling out the form or boycotting the government count.

"We can't find empirical support for that," Groves said, regarding evidence of lower participation among conservatives. He noted that perhaps 1 or 2 percent of the 10-question forms returned so far have been incomplete, which is what officials previously anticipated.

The story also quotes Groves saying that "things are going quite well" and reporting an overall rate of participation (65% yesterday, 66% today according to the Census Bureau widget included below), a number which AP reports "puts the U.S. on track to match or surpass the 2000 mail-back rate of 72 percent." As in the last Census, "most of the lagging areas are either rural or have dense populations, or have more minority and non-English speaking people."

According to a transcript posted on his web site, Limbaugh gloated that the report by "State-Controlled AP" countered the impression that only "tinfoil hat right-wingers" had failed to return their census forms. Yet he also managed to find a hint of conspiracy in Groves' comments:

You know, when the census guy comes out and says, "The big cities are lagging," isn't that a code, a codeword for "minority"? Isn't "urban" a codeword for "minority"? And how do they know they're lagging behind? Wouldn't they have to know how many people are there in the first place to know whether they're lagging behind? How can they possibly know that they're lagging behind? Hmm?

How can they know? Easy. In order to mail out the 10-question form to every household in America, the Census Bureau begins by creating a master list of households. To calculate the "mail participation rate" in any geographic area, they simply divide the number of households that has returned a form by the number of households to which forms were sent (excluding the number returned by the postal service as "undeliverable" -- it's explained in more detail here).

In fact, as we've noted previously, the Census has posted an amazingly powerful interactive map that allows you to zoom in to check the rate of response of any state, county, municipality or even neighborhood Census "tracts." You can check how your town is doing as compared to others. You can learn, for example, that recent football dominance aside, Michigan (72% participation rate) still holds a slight lead over Ohio (71%).


Alas, the map will not explain why Limbaugh has still "not received the census form" nor has "not received a census form my entire adult life" (as he also claimed in the same segment). Some mysteries are too hard to solve. However, the Census does have a two-part blog post up today on what to do if you don't have a form.

[Interests disclosed: Like Census Director Groves, I attended the University of Michigan, although I was born and raised in Ohio. Go Blue.]

Update: uber-staffer and recent University of Wisconsin graduate Emily Swanson points out that Wisconsin (77% participation rate) currently leads both the Big Ten and the nation.