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Bishop proposing bill to include overseas Mormon missionaries in U.S. census

SALT LAKE CITY — Mormon missionaries serving outside the United States along with all Americans living overseas would be counted in the census under legislation Rep. Rob Bishop proposed Thursday.

Currently, only those in the military and working for the federal government abroad are captured in the constitutionally mandated once-a-decade head count. States with high numbers of overseas residents might receive less funding for federal programs and could be underrepresented in Congress.

"This must change," Bishop, R-Utah, wrote in a March 8 letter to his colleagues seeking support for his bill.

His bill would require the U.S. Census Bureau to ensure that all Americans living abroad are "fully and accurately" counted and properly attributed to their states. Bishop said if the legislation were to pass quickly it could apply to the 2020 census. The bill itself, however, targets 2030.

About 9 million Americans live overseas, according to a 2016 State Department estimate. Many are providing short- or long-term humanitarian aid or serving ecclesiastical missions, Bishop said.

If the Census Bureau makes an exception for military and federal workers, there's no logical reason to exclude those in the private sector, he said.

"If you can identify where these people are, they should be counted," Bishop said. "If you're doing it for some, you might as well do it for as many as humanly possible."

Census results are used for making decisions at all levels of government, including determining congressional districts, building schools and roads and allocating money for health and educational services.

Utah is disproportionately disadvantaged because the Census Bureau refuses to do what it's capable of doing.

Utah experienced what Bishop is trying to correct when 11,176 Utah residents serving missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-days Saints overseas weren't counted in 2000.

The state fell 857 people short of gaining a fourth seat in the U.S. House of Representatives based on a Census Bureau formula to determine House seats. The size of the House is set by law, not by the Constitution.

Imputation, or guessing, boosted North Carolina's population count by 32,457, while it added only 5,385 to Utah's total, giving the congressional seat to North Carolina.

Utah challenged the Census Bureau's counts and counting methods, taking its arguments all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

A three-judge panel rejected the state's first lawsuit asking that Utahns abroad be counted and the high court refused to hear the case.

The Supreme Court later decided to hear a second lawsuit in which Utah argued that imputation or estimating the number in a household when residents aren't home is unconstitutional.

The court decided 5-4 that estimating household size, which has been used since the 1960 census, is legal.

"We're going to make a push for it one more time," said Bishop, noting that Utah's three other House members back the bill. "Let's see if we can get this done before there is an impact in 2020. If Utah's on the bubble (for a fifth congressional seat), I want us to be favorably considered."