AP-NORC poll: Most Americans plan to participate in census

ORLANDO, Fla. — Most Americans say they are likely to participate in the 2020 census, but some doubt that the U.S. Census Bureau will keep their personal information confidential, a new poll shows.

The poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research finds 7 in 10 Americans say it’s extremely or very likely they will participate in the census this year by filling out a questionnaire. Another 2 in 10 say it’s somewhat likely.

That's higher than what the Census Bureau predicts — a self-response rate of 6 in 10 people. But the bureau's past research shows that people say they are going to participate in the census at a higher rate than they actually do.

“People respond to a survey question as they think they are expected to behave," Kenneth Prewitt, a former Census Bureau director in the Clinton administration, said in an email.

The poll shows that older, white and highly educated adults express greater certainty that they will participate than younger adults, black and Hispanic Americans and those without college degrees.

It also shows that the more partisan people are, the more likely they are to participate. At least 7 in 10 Democrats and Republicans are very likely to answer, compared with about half of Americans who don't identify with or lean toward either party.

“It might be that they understand the importance of the census in distributing political representation and want to make sure they get their fair share," John Thompson, a former director of the U.S. Census Bureau in the Obama administration, said in an email.

The 2020 census will help determine how $1.5 trillion in federal spending is distributed. It will also determine how many congressional seats each state gets, as well as the makeup of legislative districts in a process known as redistricting.

People can start answering the questions in mid-March, either online, by telephone or by mailing in a paper form.

"I think it's important. It's a civic duty," said Quintin Sharpe, a 21-year-old college student, who's studying business at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.

Compared with the share saying they’ll participate, 57%, say it’s highly important to them to be counted in the census. About a quarter say it’s moderately important.

The poll shows about a third of Americans are very or extremely confident that the U.S. Census Bureau will keep their personal information confidential, while roughly the same share say they are moderately confident. About another third have little to no confidence in the agency to keep private information private, even though the bureau is legally required to do so.

About a quarter of Americans report a great deal of confidence in the people running the U.S. Census Bureau, and roughly two-thirds say they have some confidence.

Joe Domas, a 57-year-old carpenter in Paris, Tennessee, said he plans to fill out the census form but won't answer every question. The questionnaire asks how many people live in a household; whether their home is owned or rented; the age, race and sex of every person living in the home; and how they are related.

"I don't divulge a lot of personal information. I just give them a head count, pretty much," Domas said. “I'm not into government intrusion, and the way the internet is, people leak information.”

A majority say they have heard or read about the count of every person living in the U.S., the largest peacetime operation the federal government undertakes, but just 2 in 10 say they know “a lot." About a third say they have heard or read little or nothing at all.

That will likely change after the Census Bureau expanded its advertising campaign last week. The goal of the $500 million education and outreach effort is to reach 99% of the 140 million U.S. households with messages about the importance of participating in the 2020 census.

Many of those who say they will take the survey this year think they will complete it online. Close to half say that's their likely format, with another 2 in 10 saying they expect to fill out and mail in a paper questionnaire. Just 4% say they prefer phone, but 30% say they don’t know yet how they will respond. This is the first decennial census in which most participants are being encouraged to fill out the form online.

Gil Parks, a 60-year-old retired financial planner from Stephenville, Texas, said he still hasn't decided if he will answer questions online or use the paper form. Parks and his wife often drive to a ranch they own an hour south of where they live to keep tabs on building projects and baby calves.

"If we have a paper form, my wife could fill it out while we are driving down there and driving back," Parks said.

Majorities across racial and ethnic groups say they are highly likely to participate, but about half of white Americans are “extremely" likely, compared with about 3 in 10 black and Hispanic Americans.

About 8 in 10 college-educated Americans, but just about two-thirds of those without a degree, say they are highly likely to participate.

Similarly, roughly 8 in 10 adults older than 45 say they are very likely to complete a census questionnaire, compared with just over half of younger adults.

There’s also a significant age gap in the preferred form of answering the questions. Just about a quarter of adults ages 60 and older who will participate say they will take the survey online, compared with more than half of those who are younger. Older adults are also somewhat more likely than younger adults to express high confidence in the Census Bureau to keep their information private, 37% among those 45 and older and 25% among younger adults.

“Getting accurate data is important," said Parks, who also is chair of the local Republican Party. “We need to know who is here, and what not."

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The AP-NORC poll of 1,074 adults was conducted Feb. 13-16 using a sample drawn from NORC's probability-based AmeriSpeak Panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 4.2 percentage points. Respondents were first selected randomly using address-based sampling methods and later were interviewed online or by phone.

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Online:

AP-NORC Center: http://www.apnorc.org/

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Follow Mike Schneider on Twitter at https://twitter.com/MikeSchneiderAP

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