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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Jumping to Conclusions About Census Participation

Republican Rep. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina is fearful that "blatant misinformation coming from otherwise well-meaning conservatives" is affecting the rate at which conservatives return their 2010 Census forms. So concerned that he wrote an op-ed for RedState, a conservative news blog, where he claimed that "[e]arly census returns are showing that conservatives have been measurably less likely than liberals to return their census forms." But as our friends at Politifact wrote, there currently isn’t any evidence to support the claim.

McHenry based his claim on an article in the Houston Chronicle that reported that residents of Texas, a Republican state, were returning their forms at a lower rate than the national average. And some of the state’s most conservative counties, according to the article, had some of its lowest return rates. But that’s not enough evidence to conclude that conservatives are less likely than liberals to return their forms nationwide.

For one thing, Census return rates for Texas and the counties specifically mentioned in the article trailed the national average in 2000 as well. Furthermore, while some of the conservative counties had the lowest return rates, the trend didn’t hold statewide, according to a spreadsheet that Frances Deviney, senior research associate at the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Texas, prepared for Politifact. Deviney’s spreadsheet of statewide data showed that, so far, counties that voted for Republican John McCain in the 2008 presidential election actually had higher return rates than counties that went for Barack Obama, the Democrat.

It’s also worth mentioning that the Pew Research Center conducted a poll back in March of this year that asked people how likely they were to return their Census forms. And while the poll found that more Democrats than Republicans found the Census to be very important for the country, 90 percent of Republicans said they intended to fill out and return their Census forms, compared with 85 percent of Democrats and 85 percent of Independents.

However, McHenry is correct that the Census has been targeted by conservatives who have falsely claimed that the Census is a violation of privacy, among other things. Last year, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota made the false claim that "the Constitution doesn’t require any information beyond" how many people live in a residence. And we recently debunked several false and misleading claims about the Census that video producer Jerry Day made in a video that has been posted on a number of conservative news sites and blogs.