Jerry Huffman is and Emmy award-winning news producer and writer who has covered politics on three continents during his career.

A Challenge to Wisconsin’s Governor:

Whistleblower Wants State to Investigate Census’ Accuracy


October 2022

Editor’s Note: In a September 2022 Reporters Inc. exclusive, writer Jerry Huffman revealed that he’s one of three whistleblowers accusing the United States Census Bureau of “systematic cheating” regarding the creation of 2020 Census “Partners.” The Census Bureau responded with 88 pages of documents refuting the allegations.

Huffman has refused to back down from his claims and is now challenging Wisconsin leaders to take a hard, second look at the Census results in his home state.

 

BY JERRY HUFFMAN

Governor Tony Evers, with election day just a few days away, this is probably not at the top of your to-do list, but Wisconsin needs to take a hard look at its 2020 Census count.

Why? Because I’m not convinced it’s accurate.

For the record, the Census Bureau says Wisconsin’s population grew just over 3.5 percent in the last decade, from 5.7 million to 5.9 million.

But it also admits that neighboring Minnesota had a 2020 overcount of nearly 4 percent, and Illinois was undercounted by nearly 2 percent. We’re surrounded by miscounted states that even the Census considers “statistically significant.”

The Census is largely about money. A correct population count has a direct impact on how much of $1.5 trillion dollars in federal aid is ultimately divvied up and sent to each state. And, in my opinion, there’s a good chance that Wisconsin might have been slighted due to a faulty count

First, full disclosure, as my opinion is anything but objective. I worked for the Census from the spring of 2019 until the fall of 2020 as a “Partnership Specialist.” My job was to engage with leaders and the general public in counties across Southwestern Wisconsin in order to promote community involvement with the Census.

As part of a team of Partnership Specialists, we were expected to generate Partnerships that could lead to greater participation of people taking and completing the Census questionnaire. The thought being that the more people involved, the more likely the Census results would be accurate. The U.S. government spent millions of dollars promoting the Census but, in the end, much of its success would likely depend upon these one-on-one connections between community leaders and workers like myself.

Yes, we were “feds” but people were generally inclined to believe and trust us—primarily, I think, because we were local.

Yet in January of 2020 word came down from Chicago Census headquarters that we weren’t generating enough Partnerships. Not just in Wisconsin, but across the country. Nationally, teams were pulled from the field and assigned to dramatically beef up the Partnership numbers.

Working the phones, we asked local leaders across our region to become Partners. Most agreed, but our bosses still said we weren’t doing enough. Then, we were told to start adding names of groups or individuals who might be interested in joining—but not to bother asking them. We just had to add their names to the lists of Partners.

The mind-numbing illogic of “sign them up but don’t tell them” was incomprehensible. But it was made clear, if we didn’t like the orders, we could leave.

Three of us, myself and two other Partnership Specialists, had had enough.  As far as we were concerned, we were pumping the numbers with imaginary Partnerships. But Census leaders had promised Congress hundreds of thousands of Partnerships and they would get them—one way or the other.

We figured that the reason for the Partnership push must have been political. If we delivered less than promised, it could have hurt the Bureau’s budget for 2030.

That’s when we filed the Whistleblower complaint.

It was around Christmas of 2020 when we submitted a two-page memo outlining problems with the program. First question from the Inspector General (IG) was asking us to give up our anonymity. We declined.

Two months later, the IG ordered an investigation. But—hang on to your hats—turns out the IG ordered the Census to investigate itself. Had we finally stepped through the looking glass?

Earlier this year, the IG completed the whitewash with a recommendation of no further action. A disappointing, but not shocking decision.

In the last few months, however, we’ve taken solace in the fact that many media organizations nationwide have also been investigating the Census—resulting in some states and cities reexamining their counts.

For example:

Boston is filing a formal challenge to the Census’ conclusion that it lost thousands of citizens in 2020. The more likely explanation is that colleges lost student counts because of the pandemic shutdown.

The Brennan Center for Justice released a report concluding that the Census missed some 5 percent of our nation’s population, which equates to 19 million people. This, in addition to disproportionately undercounting people of color, with the Latino undercount at a rate more than tripling the 2010 Census.

The Pew Research Center says the Census’ own Count Question Resolution program (which allows individual municipalities to review their counts for errors) has drawn complaints from 20 local and state governments so far, including Puerto Rico. All are upset about their numbers and want them reviewed.

One of the nine Wisconsin communities pursuing corrections from the Census is the town of Belvidere in Buffalo County. Village leaders are upset because the Census is insisting that 403 people live there while the village (and the Wisconsin Department of Administration) says there are only 386.

Those 17 “people” are significant because, for example, fees for recycling are often based upon population. If the numbers aren’t changed, Belvidere could end up unfairly paying the bill for 17 people who, literally, don’t exist.

Buffalo County Clerk Deborah Ruff says she found Census leaders difficult to work with. “They keep asking for proof, which I give them, but all they do is tell me I’m wrong and won’t say why,” she laments.

“Arduous,” is how the Village of Fontana’s Administrator, Theresa Loomer, describes dealing with Census officials. This, she claims, after the Census erroneously added an extra 1,250 more people to its population base of nearly 1900. That happened, Loomer explains, because the Census included people from a different district in Fontana’s count. She credits the Wisconsin Department of Administration for getting the map corrected.

Having worked for the Census for nearly 18 months, it became obvious to me that, like most bureaucracies, it’s less than perfect. Interference from the Trump administration. Shortened deadlines. Poor communication. Pick a problem.

And, as a result, Census leaders admit that 28 percent of U.S. states (14 of 50) were either over or undercounted by the 2020 Census. That’s not a great score when you consider it had billions of tax dollars, thousands of employees, and a decade to prepare. Census leaders were always fond of bragging they created the second largest mobilization of Americans ever—second only to that of a war.

Yet according to the April 2022 report by the Pew Research Center, “Two years after Census 2020, many cities and states say the count wildly underestimated their residents, costing them significant federal and state money for the social services and infrastructure their areas need. The numbers have also created confusion in drawing new voting districts, potentially leaving some areas with less political power than they should have in state legislatures and Congress.”

And so, I present this challenge to Governor Evers: Make them prove it. If population counts in almost a third of the states are wrong, why are you so sure Wisconsin’s numbers are correct? Regardless of the politics, regardless of the pandemic, regardless of spending billions, chances are high that they didn’t get it right.

There will be hurdles, working through the Census bureaucracy. In e-mail exchanges with its public information office this fall, I was told that the Census maintains that recounts aren’t possible. But I was also told that if a community has a disagreement with its findings, its leaders can file a complaint to contest the Census’ numbers.

I also asked, if proven wrong, would the Census update its official numbers?

It still hasn’t answered that question.

Plain and simple, Wisconsin deserves a better explanation.

 

Jerry Huffman can be reached at

 

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