Utahns who have lived here since at least 2000 understand how important an accurate census count is. The state lost out on gaining a fourth congressional House seat that year when it came in 857 people short on the decennial count.
First, the state tried to get the census to count LDS missionaries from Utah living abroad, which would have added 11,176 people to the total. When that didn't work, state leaders tried to get Congress to pass a law granting Utah a fourth seat if the District of Columbia got one. That was considered a perfect political compromise because Utah's seat, a likely Republican addition, and the district's seat, a likely Democrat, would have canceled each other out.
But the plan fell victim to political concerns, as well as to worries it was unconstitutional.
No foreign-serving missionaries will be counted in 2010, but the irony is that the census probably undercounted Utah's Hispanic population in 2000, which would have given the state a fourth seat anyway.
As always, census officials say their goal is to count everyone in the United States accurately and fully. And, as always, they will fall short of that goal. Census workers face huge challenges in certain neighborhoods. The biggest of these are language barriers and suspicions. Census workers are government employees, and some people make the practice of avoiding government people a full-time job.
Despite efforts to the contrary, the census can't use statistical models to estimate population. It has to actually count heads. That means hiring workers who speak different languages and who can gain the trust of reluctant participants. It means local governments working to tear down psychological barriers among pockets of immigrants, even illegal immigrants, and persuading them to be counted. Such efforts take on added significance in Utah this time, because the state has seen a large influx of immigrants since 2000.
The census form itself is simple, asking for basic information and whether a person owns or rents his or her home. But the results are enormously important, not only for the makeup of Congress but for the appropriation of about $300 billion in federal funds.
The question this time around isn't whether Utah will get a fourth seat. Most experts agree that will happen. The question is whether it will qualify for a fifth. The latest census estimates put the state's population at 2,645,330 as of July 1, 2007. If recent growth trends hold, that ought to be about 2.8 million or more by 2010. Or it could be more, if everyone cooperates.