ELKTON — With the 2020 census on the horizon, Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration is encouraging Marylanders to stand up and be counted, despite doubts that the nation’s first online census count would leave millions vulnerable to data breaches.

“Our message is very simple. The census is important. It is easy and it is safe,” said Audra Harrison, spokeswoman with the Maryland Department of Planning, during Tuesday’s council work session. “You as leaders in Cecil County are critical to this effort to making sure that everyone in our communities are counted.”

Hogan convened the Maryland Complete Count Committee in February to develop outreach strategies to improve the state’s participation rate in the 2020 federal census. In 2010, the state recorded a 76 percent participation rate.

Cecil County was a few points behind at 73 percent participation rate, ranking about 18th of all counties and Baltimore City.

Federal aid like Medicaid, food stamps, children’s health insurance, foster care services, and transportation funding, are based on the census count. For every uncounted Maryland resident, it costs the state $18,250.

With Maryland’s 24 percent non-participation rate in the 2010 census, Harrison said the state missed out $26 billion in federal funds.

“These are all important services and oftentimes lifesaving services for the people that you represent,” Harrison said. “We want to make sure that those dollars are allocated appropriately to Cecil County and the only way to do that is make sure everyone is counted.”

The 2020 census is also critical when it comes to representation at the state and federal level, as well as economic and planning decisions. It also has become a political flashpoint, as President Donald Trump has tried and failed in three federal court cases to include a question about citizenship.

U.S. District Judge George Hazel in Maryland, the third judge to rule against the Trump administration, concluded that a citizenship question is “arbitrary and capricious” and violates the Constitution and the federal Administrative Procedure Act.

Three percent of Cecil County’s population of 101,108 people are Hispanic or Latino, according to the 2010 census. Harrison acknowledged that there may be some trepidation because of inflamed politics surrounding immigration, but advocated that people “self-respond” by completing the survey on their own.

“The best way to allay any concerns is to have people self-respond, because that way you won’t have a numerator potentially coming to your door,” she said.

The biggest challenge may come from an online census, after reports of data-mining or hacks leave many distrustful of the entire process. The U.S. Census Bureau has reportedly spent years developing defenses, including immediately separating the data from the respondent’s name after it enters the system.

The 2020 census will not be moved completely online, as people still have the option to mail in surveys or completing it over the phone. Harrison pointed out that using such traditional forms would avoid any cybersecurity concerns.

Census responses are confidential, and any violations of census demographic data or individual census data is punishable by up to five years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine, she added.

“There are challenges with the 2020 census with participation alone due to the distrust of the government or our mobile population, but we need to work with our counties, our municipalities, our neighborhoods and our communities to ensure that everyone is counted. Everyone in Maryland needs to be counted,” Harrison told the Whig later.

MDP developed a map to show where it predicts low response rate to the 2020 census, based off earlier data. The idea is that the map should guide Cecil County government in where to focus its efforts to ensure that people are counted.

MDP predicts that the Interstate 95 and the U.S. Route 40 corridors will be the lowest response areas in the 2020 census, based on previous census data. Harrison later told the Whig that the great number of industrial parks in that area could be making the low response score skewed.

Elkton is pinpointed as a place where 22 to 25 percent of the population may not complete the census.

As the Maryland Complete Count Committee starts its outreach plan, Harrison encourages Cecil County to start a committee of its own and partner with towns and homeowner associations to complete the census.

“The more we talk about census, the more we talk about partnerships, the more people we can break down those barriers and get everyone counted,” she said.

The census is expected to roll out in March. The Maryland Complete Count Committee has a target census response deadline of April 1, 2020, with numerators sent out to follow-up that summer.

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