Some city councillors are still not happy with a discrepancy with U.S. Census numbers that count people living in empty blocks or commercial businesses, but seem satisfied that the issues lie with the federal government and not city staff.
Early last week, Ward 2 Councillor Ira Novoselsky, whose ward takes the heaviest hit in the redistrict mapping process, brought up an issue where census figures seemed to show 67 people living at a commercial business on North Shore Road. Later that week, Reuben Kantor, the city’s Chief Innovation Officer and part of the city’s redistricting team, was back before the City Council to lay out how some of the census numbers could have been skewed by the federal government.
“I think I speak for the reprecincting team that we were not expecting the meeting [last] Monday to go the way it did, so I apologize,” said Kantor.
In addition to providing more information on how census data could show people living where it is obvious no one lives, Kantor said he wanted to clear up some issues differentiating between U.S. Census data and city census and election data. “There is no relationship between the U.S. Census data and Revere voter data – no connection whatsoever,” said Kantor. “We did a full check of the voter record, and we also did a check of the city census record, and there is nobody registered at that [1605 Northshore Rd.] address. This is a U.S. Census data issue only.”
Kantor said cities and states are not provided with any of the data other than the total population and basic demographic information, and that the U.S. Commerce Department would be the only entity that would be able to audit the census data.
Additionally, Kantor said that the Revere Counts staff that operated through the city was an outreach operation only, and that only federal census enumerators could assist people in filling out census forms. “I want to note the work of the Revere Counts Committee, because that seemed to come into some question [last] week,” said Kantor. “The Revere Counts group provides outreach to residents to urge them to complete their census, to complete them online and to respond to the federal census enumerators when they come calling or knocking on their door. The instructions to all Revere Counts staff and grantees were very clear; they were never allowed to assist anyone in filling out a U.S. Census form.”
After researching the issue and contacting the legal counsel for the Massachusetts Secretary of State, Kantor said, the redistricting committee pinpointed five potential issues that, taken together, could account for the 67 people included in the census block containing only one commercial business. Kantor added that people have been listed as living at that particular census block during the 2000 and 2010 federal censuses as well.
In addition, Kantor and Novoselsky both noted that there were several other areas in the city that were identified as addresses that did not contain residential buildings.
During the past decade, Kantor said, the census bureau has launched a series of data privacy strategies called disclosure avoidance. “What disclosure avoidance does is actually swap and move data around a little bit to make it really hard to identify the individual census blocks that someone could figure out,” said Kantor, “so it is very likely that some of the data was moved, and they create ‘noise’ to move individuals into a block so they can’t be as easily identified from a different block.”
Census blocks are created by the census bureau about a year before the census and are typically based on street and natural boundaries within a city, although the city does not have input into how the boundaries are determined.
In addition to the disclosure avoidance, Kantor said, federal census enumerators may use past addresses to identify individuals who have filled out a prior census but have not filled out an existing census. Kantor said there could also have been people who filled out a federal census, but didn’t want the federal government to know where they lived and did not give a correct address. “We also know the U.S. Census has a practice of counting people who are living outdoors – people who might be considered homeless or not have a residence – and they often log them at an address near where they may be staying,” said Kantor. The final possibility, he said, is that sometimes workers who have a temporary residence will fill out their work address on the census.
“I don’t think any one of these explains the 67, but I think a combination of these five adds up to the 67, and as I’ve mentioned, this is not a new problem for the city,” said Kantor. “We did talk to the general counsel for the Secretary of State, and I think it is worth noting that this is the third census she has worked on, and this is the first time she’s ever heard of a municipality complaining of an overcount. She hears a lot of complaints about undercounts, and a lot of cities take action against undercounts.”
Novoselsky said he still isn’t happy with the explanations and noted that he had identified more locations in his ward that were not residential but listed 189 people. “I know you say that’s the way they have been coming down for the last two censuses, but it wasn’t an issue then because it wasn’t affecting the precinct lines; it wasn’t affecting the ward lines, but now it is,” said Novoselsky. “I still say there is some kind of fraud and nastiness going on with something like this, and I don’t believe the U.S. Commerce Department and U.S. Census department should be allowed to put people where they don’t belong in empty lots.”
Novoselsky said his ward lines on the new map should look different based on the 189 people from his ward. As part of the new redistricting map, the Garfield School, which was in Ward 2, was moved into Ward 1. “I don’t care what they say, I will not vote for this map at all,” said Novoselsky.
City Council President Anthony Zambuto said he still has issues with the census data and redistricting process, but laid the blame at the federal government and not the city. “This has been – I’ll be kind – enlightening, and I think I trust the federal government less now than I did before the beginning of the process,” said Zambuto. “But I don’t see any criminality or anything on the part of the census takers. I think we were taken aback by the numbers, and some of us might have said some things that weren’t accurate or were an overreach. Like I said, I trust the federal government even less, but this is part of the process, and we thank everyone who has done the work, and obviously, no one was counting people – they were just trying to solicit people to fill out the census forms.”
Councillor-at-Large George Rotondo said the explanations from Kantor made him feel comfortable that at least the City of Revere would not be found legally liable if there were found to be issues with the census data. He also said he has spoken to city councillors in surrounding communities, and some have said they have had no issues similar to the issues in Revere, while some said there have been some irregularities.