GET TO THE POINT: Covering the 2020 Census Amid a Pandemic and its Aftermath

On the Ground With Gabe is a FingerLakes1.com blog that “takes you behind the headlines, practices, techniques and ethics of all things journalism.”


It was the start of a new decade and I remember scheduling an interview with Jeff Behler, the U.S. Census Bureau’s northeast director. 

I spoke with him virtually for over an hour on Zoom during an unprecedented time — not only for census workers, but journalists, too.

I eventually wrote an article titled “In-depth on the U.S. Census, how pandemic changes process, and the challenge of rural broadband access,” which later led to the creation of a Daily Debrief edition that FL1 News Director Josh Durso produced. 

It’s been almost a year since I connected with him on May 13, 2020. Since then, the results from the latest U.S. Census have been released.

Despite advancing new technologies, allowing residents to fill-out the census online from the safety of their households without any direct contact from surveyors — New York’s overall performance still fell considerably compared to the national self-response rate. 

It’s the first-time that the census fully utilized the Internet and it couldn’t come at any better moment in 2020.

Around that time in May, New York had a 53.7 percent self-response rate statewide, which was six-percent lower than the national rate of 59.1 percent. Behler also shared initial figures from the self-response rates for some of our counties during my conversation with him.

Seven months later, the final census counts were tallied online through the U.S. Census Self-Response Rates Map by January 28, 2021. Two specific figures were tracked: Internet self-response rates and the total rate, which includes in-person, online and mail-in submissions.

2020 Internet, Total Self-Response Rates by County

Name05/13/2020 Pct. Total01/28/2021 Pct. Internet Rate01/28/2021 Pct. Total
Seneca County50.741.958
Ontario County53.450.460.1
Wayne County23.745.760.3
Yates County44.437.351

Source: U.S. Census Self-Response Rates Map. Credit: Gabriel Pietrorazio, FingerLakes1.com.

While New York State has dragged behind in comparison to the national averages, Behler insisted these initial numbers indicate the fact that the 2020 Census is bringing people together, albeit virtually.

“Now, New York State as a whole was behind the national average, some communities in Upstate New York are behind the national and state average, but it’s amazing what they’ve done,” he explained. “You take probably one of the most important components out of a census, and that’s the ability to bring people together, to educate them, to motivate them and then to give them the opportunities to complete the census.”

Eventually New York closed the gap by less than three percentage points in late-January; 67-percent of Americans offered self-responses nationwide while 64.2-percent of New Yorkers did.

Yet, the Empire State still ended up 89 residents short from securing all 27 congressional districts ahead of the redistricting phase in 2021

There are a lot of reasons behind the aforementioned decline none more glaringly notable than a global public health crisis that cost the lives of 51,791 New Yorkers to date.

A downward trend in the state’s population also heavily contributed to the U.S. Census’ outcome in New York.

The Empire Center for Public Policy noted from the preliminary U.S. Census data on July 1, 2020 that 126,355 residents moved out-of-state since 2019, a decline of 0.65 percent compared to the state’s current population of 19,336,776.

In both absolute and percentage terms, New York’s population drop in 2019-20 was the biggest among 16 states,” E.J. McMahon wrote. 

That could mean the end of a scandal-plagued career of Rep. Tom Reed [R-23], who’s no longer seeking reelection upon completing his current congressional term by 2022.

Tom Magnarelli of WRVO, an National Public Radio affiliate member station, reported that Grant Reeher, director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute said: “There won’t be someone there arguing against or for a redistricting line in the same way that you would have if someone was actually an incumbent and running again.”

In the eight counties that FingerLakes1.com primarily covers, the census self-response rates have decreased in each community by a combined average of almost five-percent across Cayuga, Ontario, Schuyler, Seneca, Steuben, Tompkins, Wayne and Yates.

2010-2020 Total Self-Response Rates by County

Name2010 Self-Response Pct. Total2020 Self-Response Pct. Total
Cayuga County63.960.8
Ontario County70.160.1
Schuyler County58.657.9
Seneca County63.558
Steuben County62.160.7
Tompkins County67.563.8
Wayne County68.260.3
Yates County56.551

Source: U.S. Census Self-Response Rates Map. Credit: Gabriel Pietrorazio, FingerLakes1.com.

Behler told me that “technology has really helped us,” allowing partners like libraries that weren’t even open to still proceed with assisting New Yorkers in filling-out the census.

However, there’s still an equity issue when it comes to accessing affordable broadband services in the Finger Lakes and rest of Upstate. 

In the case of Yates County, Nonnie Flynn, the county’s treasurer and administrator, admitted that they’ve been ahead of the curb during a Daily Debrief program after being awarded a $10.3 million broadband grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect Program.

But not every county in New York State is fortunate enough like Yates either. Even Behler acknowledged that reality last May.

“We certainly understand that just because it’s available online, there’s households as you mentioned, that don’t have Internet access or maybe they don’t want to use their cell phone to fill out the census,” Behler told me.

Almost a year later, New York announced an unprecedented move to make broadband more accessible to all families statewide, a decision that’s now being contested by major telecom companies.

However, hindsight is always 20/20.

And long before mounting corporate interests stoked against the New York’s ambitious broadband initiative, Behler believed that he “cannot foresee a future census that doesn’t involve data collection over the Internet” and affirmed that his organization aims at advantaging communities that are disconnected and off the grid, particularly in rural regions like the Finger Lakes. 

I think that is a huge success, and it just opens up the doors for opportunities for different communities,” he said. “Granted, we may be providing the resources to them in order to do it, but I think that’s a wonderful opportunity that we’ve learned.”