CASA GRANDE — Hot weather, a pandemic and distrust of government all led to a scenario in which a census undercount in Casa Grande was likely, according to an enumerator who worked for the census last year.
According to 66-year-old retired veteran Earl Marsh, census takers who went door-to-door encountered residents, many of them Hispanic, who refused to respond or divulge any information, or didn’t speak enough English to understand the request.
“I can honestly say it was the most disorganized job I’ve ever had,” Marsh said. “It was so convoluted. Everybody working was temporary. The right hand didn’t know what the left hand was doing.”
Marsh and just four others were tasked with reaching out to transient or semi-permanent residents within the entire county. That included those who had initially not responded to the census and residents who lived in RV parks or even homeless camps. Originally, Marsh said there had been 12 paid workers, but over half didn’t show up for the first day of training, leaving the five of them to do work meant for a larger crew.
Some of the neighborhoods Marsh visited included Fiesta Grande RV Resort just south of Florence Boulevard in Casa Grande and the Sierra Vista RV Park near Francisco Grande Hotel.
Within the RV communities, the census takers collected uncertain totals due to time constraints. At some of the parks, Marsh said they had to rely on the numbers given to them by a manager, because it was clear they couldn’t just count trailers. Marsh noted that at Fiesta Grande, which has about 800 parking spaces for RVs, there were only about four when he was sent to count residents there in October.
Other times, Marsh said, for various reasons they’d find out the census had already visited the neighborhood two or three times already.
“I am sure there were people that we missed,” Marsh said. “The guys I worked with, we all agreed there were people who didn’t get counted. There’s no way, in the amount of time we had, we could have gotten them all. In Ajo, we went to two out of the four or five trailer parks.”
Their orientation focused on how to properly fill out the census forms but did not train the census takers in how to handle logistical issues or persuade fearful residents to participate. From their headquarters in Tucson, the enumerators were sent out to places in Pinal County, but they were unsure what to expect.
In addition to hostility from residents, the enumerators sometimes worked in near-120-degree heat, and even if they wore masks, there was an issue of social distancing and health safety when they entered a home, however briefly.
“A lot of people didn’t want anything to do with us,” Marsh said. “They were afraid we were going to count them and turn their names over to immigration. That was really hard.”
For his part, Marsh said he tried to use his high school Spanish, or take pains to explain to skeptics that the census count was important for municipalities to secure funds for things like schools and roads.
“I treat people the way I want to be treated,” Marsh said. “I told them: I don’t care if you are an illegal alien, this is just about doing the count.”
Marsh said that “99 percent of the time,” if he got to the point where he was able to explain the purpose of the census, people cooperated.
However, if residents refused to participate, Marsh said workers were not supposed to argue and instead would mark down on a box that they “would not talk to us,” and were not counted.
The census count was originally slated to end on Oct. 4 of 2020; efforts to extend the count to ensure that everyone was included were cut short by the Trump administration and the Supreme Court, and the 2020 census count concluded on Oct. 15.
At the time, Gila River Indian Community Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis sharply criticized the decision, calling it “a bitter pill to swallow” with “no explanation or rationale.” A month earlier in September, Lewis had said that only 15% of GRIC residents had filled out census forms.
“This continues a long history of leaving Indian peoples at the margins of the U.S. society at large and economy,” Lewis said of the undercount.
Marsh did not know whether it would be worth it for communities in Pinal County to request a recount, suggesting it would depend on how cities felt about the cost and whether marginal population gains would impact specific infrastructure programs. Local leaders such as Casa Grande Mayor Craig McFarland have said they are at least exploring recount options and their feasibility.
However, Marsh said that if the issues he saw in Pinal County occurred statewide, it would go a long way toward explaining why Arizona wasn’t allocated a 10th congressional district.
“Can you imagine what the Tucson or Phoenix area was like?” Marsh said. “They probably had the same problems we encountered, but multiplied by 10.”