State governments and civic groups are sinking scarce dollars into the phone banks, TV ads and door-knocking commonly seen in political campaigns to pump up numbers in the upcoming census.
They've got a vested interest in going beyond the U.S. Census Bureau's planned $300 million blitz to try to persuade households to fill out the 10-question form they will receive early next year. Clout in Congress and billions of future federal dollars ride on the once-a-decade head count.
While some local promotional plans are still in the works, others are moving ahead well before 2010 arrives.
In Minnesota, coordinator Ryan Dolan enlisted mayors, town clerks and others to plug the census in newsletters and recorded messages to callers on hold. Tens of thousands of census-branded flying discs, pencils, bookmarks and rulers were snapped up at the campaign's state fair booth.
New York's Joel Barkin, a deputy secretary of state, expects his state to place ads in ethnic publications and on niche radio stations to target immigrants and other groups with traditionally poor census participation.
In Massachusetts, nonprofit organizer Kelly Bates is helping shape plans for phone banks and door-to-door visits to boost response rates.
All say they can't risk having anyone overlooked.
"It doesn't matter to the U.S. Census Bureau if Minnesota has eight or seven members of the U.S. House of Representatives," Dolan said. "They're not going to really care if Minnesota gets X amount of dollars versus Iowa, and they really shouldn't."
The Constitution requires the count of people living in the country every 10 years, regardless of their citizenship status.
Each U.S. House district is supposed to have roughly the same number of people, and the census is used to determine how many representatives each state will have. Minnesota, Massachusetts and New York, as well as a handful of other states, all face the possibility of losing seats in the 435-member House to faster-growing states in the South and West.
The results also figure into the annual distribution of federal money to states - $400 billion at last count - for more than 100 government programs, from road construction to Head Start to food stamps. Some money trickles down to civic groups that help low-income and immigrant communities.
Bates, whose Massachusetts Census Equity Fund plans to partner with the state, noted that civic groups that already have connections in hard-to-count communities often are better-equipped than governments to alleviate concerns that census answers will be used against people.
"The census cannot reach everybody. Number two, they're not trusted by everybody," Bates said.
Sharing individual data with immigration, tax and law enforcement authorities is a crime that carries severe penalties.
If past patterns hold, fewer than seven in 10 households will return the census forms. Those who don't can expect visits from census staff. Even then, no census passes without some people being missed.
Minnesota lawmakers have devoted $720,000 to their state's 2010 census campaign, even as they cut budgets for colleges, health programs and most state agencies in the face of multibillion-dollar deficits. Massachusetts, New York and California are poised to spend $2 million apiece.
Because of a historic budget crisis, California, which had 10 of the nation's top 50 hard-to-count counties in the 2000 census, is spending is only a fraction of the $25 million allocated in 2000.
But California Complete Count Committee spokesman Eric Alborg said the state is seeing foundations and local governments step up more with time and money.
For example, San Francisco supervisors allocated $870,000, or about $1 per county resident, for census promotion. And last month, the private California Foundation committed $4 million for outreach among hard-to-count immigrant and low-income populations, building on a nonprofit's recent $1.5 million pledge. In some places, promoters hope to persuade ethnic markets to print information about the census on grocery receipts.
In Minnesota, Dolan's team held 25 town halls this year and crafted public service announcements for radio and television in English, Hmong, Somali and Spanish. At the just-concluded state fair, volunteers put a special focus on retirees who spend their winters in the South, telling them that their census forms could arrive before they return home.
Jeanne Snaza Maanum, a substitute teacher from West St. Paul, stopped by the booth to clear up when the census would start. It actually begins before the official April 1 "Census Day," with forms arriving in mailboxes in February and March. She said she considers the awareness campaign worthwhile.
"The way things are going in our government, I don't want to lose out on any representation," she said.