With Dukes County ranking last in the state in its response to the 2020 U.S. Census, Island organizers are stepping up outreach efforts and urging seasonal homeowners to respond to the census for their Vineyard addresses.

As of Monday this week, only 21.4 per cent of households in the county, which includes Martha’s Vineyard and the sparsely populated Elizabeth islands, had responded to the census. Nantucket is just ahead, with a response rate of 24.7 per cent. The statewide response rate is 63.6 per cent, with the highest rate in Hampshire county at 70.4 per cent.

Keith Chatinover, a county commissioner who is chairman of the complete count committee, said the census response rate in Dukes County is traditionally lower than the state average, but the rate this time around is abysmal. He said low funding from the state and federal government, problems with mailing to home addresses and large immigrant and elderly populations — two groups he said are historically undercounted in the decennial census — are all factors.

But this year, in addition to coronavirus-related complications, Mr. Chatinover said his committee has found a new wrinkle in reasons for the low census response rate in the county.

The committee only recently learned that second homeowners are required to fill out a census for both their main residence and any additional homes they may own. For seasonal homes, owners can simply write zero in the line indicating the number of occupants.

“[The low response rate] has a lot to do with our seasonal homeowners not responding to the census,” Mr. Chatinover told the Gazette by phone early this week. “We didn’t learn of that being a problem until a week ago . . . we weren’t told to market to them at all.”

As of 2018, Martha’s Vineyard had an estimated 17,789 homes, according to the American Community Survey, an annual survey headed by the U.S Census Bureau. Of those, 11,422 are considered vacant, meaning they are not rented and are occupied less than five months a year.

Jeff Behler, director for the census bureau’s New York regional office, agreed that the low response rate is likely linked to the high number of seasonal homes in Dukes County.

“We know there is a high percentage of households that are not occupied. Because of that, we can expect self-response rates to be much lower,” Mr. Behler said Monday. “We want every address to self-respond to the census.”

Without accounting for seasonal homes, the response rate is around 55 per cent, putting Dukes County in line with other regions in the state, said Alex Elvin, a planner with the Martha’s Vineyard Commission and member of the complete count committee.

Census numbers are used to determine how much federal funding is distributed to states and counties. The funds are used for critical services, like health care, affordable housing grants, education and much more. The census is also used to determine legislative boundaries. As the census only takes place once every 10 years, Mr. Chatinover said the stakes are high.

Other factors complicated the process this year as well, Mr. Chatinover said.

He said the census bureau delivered packages with individual identification numbers to every residential mailbox in March, but two-thirds of Island residents receive their mail at a post office box address, and did not receive the package.

“This is the biggest quirk that we, on the Island, are disproportionately affected by,” Mr. Chatinover said.

The pandemic disrupted the schedule for programs that spur participation in the census. Census enumerators, paid federal per diem workers managed at the regional level, traditionally begin knocking on doors and educating households on how to fill out the census in April. Mr. Behler said that program has been pushed back to August, due to social distancing protocols.

And Mr. Chatinover said counties across the country are chronically underfunded. The MVC applied for $30,000 in state funding for outreach programs but received only $10,000.

As a result, funding for advertising and educational programs has been scant. The committee has already run out of money to pay Jean Cabonce, who was hired as the census outreach coordinator in March, and continues to work as a volunteer.

Last week, the MVC received a $5,000 grant from the Massachusetts Equity Fund. Complete count committee members said they are hoping to increase response rates — specifically in the Brazilian and elderly populations.

Mr. Elvin said the committee has distributed more than 10,000 cards to postal boxes, written in both English and Portuguese, informing residents how to fill out the census online. Educational pamphlets are being distributed at the high school and food pantries. The goal is to reach people who rent and are in lower income brackets, who are at risk for being undercounted, Mr. Elvin said.

Committee members urged all people on Martha’s Vineyard, including undocumented residents, to fill out the census. The information is confidential and cannot be shared with other government agencies. Census enumerators who share personal information are liable for a $250,000 fine.

“There is trust there that really needs to be established,” Mr. Chatinover said. “That is why we are hoping to lean on the Brazilian leaders.”

The deadline to complete the census is Oct. 31. Census packages are being hung on door knobs around the Island. People also can fill out the census online. It is available in 13 languages, including Portuguese. The census can also be completed over the phone by calling 844-330-2020.