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Few responding to overseas census

Test count to aid in decision on missionaries

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The Census Bureau is counting on a last-minute publicity campaign to boost what the agency's chief calls a disappointing response to its first-ever test of counting U.S. citizens abroad — which could recognize church missionaries.

Only 4,500 forms have been filled out since the test started in February in France, Kuwait and Mexico. There's no exact count of U.S. citizens living overseas so it is impossible to gauge a response rate, though other records show 112,000 Americans in France alone who have registered with the State Department.

The test count follows a Supreme Court decision in 2001 that rejected Utah's lawsuit claiming that some 11,000 LDS Church missionaries living overseas should have been included in the state's population.

Census results are used in part to reapportion the 435 House seats among the states each decade according to population shifts. The question of whether and how to count U.S. citizens abroad drew increased scrutiny after the 2000 count, when Utah fell about 80 residents short of being allocated another congressional seat.

This year's test, as well as another one tentatively planned in 2006, will help determine whether the bureau will officially include citizens abroad as part of the next U.S. head count in 2010.

"It's fair to say that the response has been disappointing," bureau director Louis Kincannon said in an interview Friday. "Based on what we've learned so far it would be a very complicated and expensive job in 2010."

Congress would ultimately have to approve such a change to the once-a-decade census. The test itself costs roughly $6 million to conduct.

Kincannon said he's puzzled why so few are responding, though he doesn't think it's due to U.S. citizens abroad fearing to identify themselves as such in light of heightened anti-American sentiment.

The test ends this month. Kincannon will travel to France next week to attend several events with other U.S. officials there to publicize the count. The bureau says it has expanded its media campaign in France and Mexico, though nothing more is planned in Kuwait.

It is the federal government's first effort to count U.S. citizens living privately overseas. The census already tallies American soldiers and federal workers stationed in other countries.

The overseas forms are available in the three test countries at U.S. embassies, consulates and other locations that Americans may frequent. People can also respond online at www.census.gov.