Summit County Commissioner Elisabeth Lawrence pushes for an investigation into the county’s 2020 census count
Lawrence believes that Summit County’s numbers were undercounted
Eagle and Pitkin County have grounds to request recount of their 2020 census data. Due to what they believe was an exemption of entire areas of land in the 2020 census, Pitkin County estimates they will miss out on $35 million of federal funds over the next ten years if the error isn’t fixed.
When Summit County Commissioner Elisabeth Lawrence caught wind of this, she was reminded just how important the census is and how complicated the 2020 census count was.
In November of 2018 — a year and a half before the census would even begin in March of 2020, and months before she would become a county commissioner — Lawrence started to prepare for the upcoming count.
“Summit County has always been a historically hard-to-count place, or undercounted place,” Lawrence said.
So her goal was to have the most successful and accurate count Summit had seen in years. Lawrence said with a laugh, “I love a good challenge.”
Along with Summit County Assistant County Manager Sarah Vaine and Peyton Rogers, executive administration assistant at the town of Breckenridge, Lawrence formed the Complete Count Committee to kick start a fool-proof plan to count every head in Summit County. The committee came up with a whole slew of ideas: free pizza parties, free beer, advertisements all over the county and in-person census count events at ski resorts and at employee housing.
The Census Bureau encouraged the surveys to be filled out digitally, so mobile technology and iPads were procured.
“We were putting all our efforts into these in-person events,” Lawrence said. “We are going to come to you get you counted.”
The committee even received a grant from the state to help bring their ideas to fruition.
“We had all these plans, and we had over 100 locals that were working with us,” Lawrence said.
For a time, things were looking good. But then one by one, complication after complication started to pop up.
“It was a perfect storm,” Lawrence said.
First, the national political climate at the time was charged with uncertainty and fear. Right before the 2020 census survey, Former U.S. President Donald Trump and his administration attempted to add a question to the survey regarding citizenship status. Though it was shot down by the Supreme Court in June of 2019, Lawrence said there were segments in the community that were still frightened.
“I feared for them and I understood,” she said.
Then on March 5, the first case of COVID-19 in the entire state of Colorado was reported in Summit County at the St. Anthony Summit Hospital in Frisco.
“Friday the 13th of 2020 — that is the day, as we say, the world stopped turning,” Lawrence said of the days afterward.
Soon, thousands of seasonal employees were without jobs, just days before the census survey opened on March 15. All the sudden, the census was the last thing on everybody’s mind.
“I was devastated over COVID, but I was in the fetal position over the census,” Lawrence said.
Eventually, the county continued its effort to get residents to fill out the survey, and the deadline for the census was extended until July 2021. But still, Lawrence said she wasn’t confident in the count.
“We tried the best we could,” Lawrence said. “We knew we were not going to get the correct count. It wasn’t going to happen.”
Sure enough, when the results came out, Lawrence said the numbers just didn’t seem right. When she saw that Eagle and Pitkin counties had basis for a recount, she immediately wanted to start an investigation.
According to the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan, nonprofit, and nonadvocacy fact tank, a region is required to have evidence in three different scenarios. The first — like Pitkin County — requires proof that some housing units were deleted from the count. The second scenario is that incorrect boundary lines were used in the count. The third, scenario was that that some housing units were assigned to the wrong town.
“It’s always important to look closely at the data, when its released, to make sure that things that appear to have happened, like for example in Pitkin and Eagle County, may or may not have happened here,” said Summit County Commissioner Tamara Pogue.
Therefore, the county is tasked with the mission to find out if there are any areas where the count went wrong.
“Yes, this might be complicated, but I think it would be worth doing,” Lawrence said at the Summit Board of County Commissioners work session on Tuesday, May 17.
After all, the census is directly tied to how much a county receives in federal funds. Money that, Lawrence argued, could go toward health and human services, transportation and roads — all necessary components for a county that fluctuates in population depending on the time of year.
Undercounts have happened before. On the Census Bureau website, an article was posted on Thursday, May 19 that estimated the 2020 census had undercounts for Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas. Lawrence said the first area they will look at is Keystone, a region whose population heavily relies on seasonal ski resort employment.
“We need to take our blinders off with COVID — we need to talk about 2020 census,” Lawrence said.
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