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Detroit — Mayor Mike Duggan said canvassers equipped with electronic tablets will be dispatched next year for the 2020 census to improve the accuracy of the count.

It would be part of the city of Detroit's $1.7 million effort to boost response rates after only 64 percent of households submitted their forms in 2010 prior to the U.S. Census Bureau sending out doorknockers, the lowest of any major city.

Response rates affect the allocation of representative seats in Congress and the state Legislature as well as the distribution of billions of federal money.

For the first time, residents will be able to fill out the census form online. With the hope that will increase response rates, fewer Census Bureau workers will be sent door to door, Duggan said.

"There's an upside that our field crews could sign people up more quickly with this technology," he said. "That's why we're getting started a year ahead of time to make it start to our advantage."

The U.S. Census Bureau will have its own canvassers going door to door starting in May 2020 to increase responses. The city also hires its own — roughly 100 — to go to census tracks with small response rates.

Victoria Kovari, Detroit's 2020 census campaign executive director, said billions of dollars Michigan receives from the federal government is affected by the census through programs such as Medicaid, food stamps, school lunch programs and highway construction.

"These are things that impact everyday Detroiters' lives," Kovari said. "Filling out the census is just not an obligation or sometimes a nuisance, but it does directly impact people and their everyday lives through these programs."

On April 1, the city of Detroit is kicking off its efforts with block clubs, churches and other community groups to organize the campaign. Kovari said at least 150 recreational centers, library branches, social service centers and headstart locations will provide support services to assist residents filling out the form. The census form will become available March 12, 2020, with a deadline of mid-July.

The city also has identified the census tracks that saw the smallest response rates and is deploying its resources to those areas, she said.

"Data is driving all of this," Kovari said.

The city is supporting the efforts with $500,000, while the rest is expected to be raised from philanthropic and corporate partners, Kovari said.

Minorities, immigrants and renters tend to be undercounted, said Hassan Jaber, CEO of Arab-American nonprofit ACCESS. He said there can be confusion and frustration filling out government forms and fear of privacy, particularly with the digitization of the census and since the Trump administration is seeking to ask if a person is a U.S. citizen. The U.S. Supreme Court will determine if the government can do so this summer.

"The federal law is clear, the Census Bureau cannot share any of your data with any other federal agency," Duggan said. "But we're already seeing early signs of scare tactics: 'Don't fill it out. They'll use it this way.'"

Other people express concerns filling out the census form could increase their taxes and have other negative consequences, said Jane Garcia, Latin Americans for Social and Economic Development chairman.

"It's a government form, and that's scary," Garcia said. "Worse than I've ever seen. People are very afraid."

bnoble@detroitnews.com

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