North Carolina experts and advocates are warning that a move by the U.S. Census Bureau to end the national count early could lead to an undercount of some minority and low income communities.

The bureau made the announcement this week, saying they will wrap up the once-in-a-decade count at the end of September, a month earlier than expected. The news comes in the midst of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which has already delayed aspects of the count, including the deployment of door knockers who follow up with those who have so far not completed the form.

In a statement, the U.S. Census Bureau director said that in order to meet an end-of-the-year deadline for apportionment data, they would “improve the speed of our count without sacrificing completeness.”

But the new deadline adds a new time crunch, causing some in North Carolina to raise concerns about whether the numbers will in fact be complete.

Hector Vaca with Action NC warned that “the Black and brown communities, poor people that are essential workers that are at work, who sometimes don’t have the time to talk to the census staff person” may get overlooked.

The coronavirus has already forced Vaca and others to get creative in how they encourage people to participate. Vaca said they have done ‘caravans’ through communities to raise awareness. Alba Sanchez with the Latin American Coalition in Charlotte said they have posted videos on social media and shared them with friends, urging people to participate.

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North Carolinians so far are lagging behind on completing the census. The state ranks 36th nationwide in terms of the self-response rate, according to data compiled by the Census Bureau.

North Carolina has just over a 59 percent self-response rate, with people participating online, over the phone, or through the mail. The national average is 63 percent.

Rebecca Tippett, the director of Carolina Demography at UNC, says North Carolina has some ground to make up just to break even with participation a decade ago.

“We are below our 2010 response rate right now by almost 6 percentage points,” she said.

A map from the U.S. Census Bureau shows the responses lagging in North Carolina in counties in the west, northeast, and south. Meanwhile, Union County leads the way with a response rate of more than 70 percent.

If people do not participate, the Census Bureau can tabulate a best guess about the population, but Tippett warns that could potentially impact the accuracy of the count of minorities, rural residents, low income folks, and people without access to the Internet.

“If some of the records that they use to impute don’t look like those communities, you could really get an undercount there,” Tippett said.

Why is the census so important? It is used to help determine how to split up federal funding and congressional seats, among other things.

Because of North Carolina’s rising population, the state is expected to gain a congressional seat after this census.

Tippett said the current low response rate should not prevent North Carolina from picking up that additional seat, although it could impact how congressional and legislative lines are drawn within the state.