With the deadline for the 2020 U.S. Census less than two weeks away, Island organizers are ramping up outreach efforts to boost participation, after a monthslong counting process hamstrung by funding cuts, postal challenges and ongoing concern about low response rates on the Island.

The decennial census, launched April 1, will close Sept. 30, a full month sooner than initially announced by the U.S. government.

Keith Chatinover, a county commissioner who is heading the complete count committee for Dukes County, said as the closing date approaches, census bureau officials and local outreach leaders are hoping for a strong finish.

But the task of counting the Island population, with its high proportion of seasonal residents, has been punctuated by a seemingly endless series of hurdles.

The first challenges began last spring when a code for online participation was sent out to residential street addresses nationally, missing roughly two-thirds of the Island population that receives its mail through a post office box, Mr. Chatinover said.

“The Vineyard started out from behind, that was a huge problem,” he said. Thanks to forms delivered subsequently by the bureau to individual residences on the Island, the county’s self-reporting rate has since risen.

But the problems were far from over.

Alex Elvin, a planner with the Martha’s Vineyard Commission and member of the complete count committee, said sparse federal funding hampered count efforts from the beginning.

As for the local process, he said: “There wasn’t any plan in place, I think because the census processes happen 10 years apart. It’s enough time for people to kind of forget about it.”

Early in the process, the MVC requested $30,000 from the state for census assistance, but with a high volume of applicants from other commonwealth communities, the Island received only a third of the proposed grant. That meant scaled-back plans for in-person assistance centers and home-based services.

Slim funding also posed problems for Island outreach efforts, with the MVC struggling to fund the outreach coordinator position from June until early September. “It has just all been challenging and it’s left a lot up to communities to do for themselves,” said Mr. Elvin.

With diminished funding, the commission received grant money from the Massachusetts Census Equity Fund, a statewide initiative begun in 2010 devoted to increasing census participation. The MVC received $5,000 to continue outreach, and $2,500 for necessary supplies, totaling $17,500 in census-related monies, but still well below the initial budget.

Throughout the summer, Dukes County response rates lagged severely behind state and national rates.

In late June, only 21.4 per cent of households in the county had responded to the census, according to the U.S. Census Bureau website. As of Tuesday, the county response rate was 30.6 per cent — compared with the state rate of 68.4 per cent and the national rate of 65.9 per cent — making Dukes one of the lowest responding counties in the country.

For comparison, as of Tuesday, 50.1 per cent of households in Barnstable county had responded while only 29.3 per cent of those in Nantucket had completed the form.

Mr. Chatinover cautioned that the Vineyard statistic is skewed by a high volume of seasonal residents leaving the Island census blank.

According to his estimates, the actual response rate on the Island is currently hovering at around 88 per cent, factoring out seasonal residents whose responses won’t affect the federal funding at stake in the survey. Door-to-door efforts (called Non-Response-Follow-Up interviews) are pushing the total count number on the Vineyard higher still, Mr. Chatinover said.

In an effort to overcome the obstacles, the MVC hired Steve Auerbach two weeks ago as an Island outreach coordinator to help educate Islanders about the census and encourage populations at risk of undercounting — such as immigrant and non-English-speaking communities — to fill out the form.

Mr. Auerbach is rolling out a revised outreach program focused on targeting specific organizations and community ambassadors, Mr. Elvin said.

Notices have gone out in Portuguese and English to families at the public schools, and informational banners have been hung in Oak Bluffs, with plans to put two more in Edgartown and one in West Tisbury. Mr. Auerbach has begun a census Facebook group and hopes to set up tables at key community intersections, like Cronig’s Market and the Island Food Pantry.

“All I can do is try to get people aware and then it becomes kind of up to them to carry the ball,” he said.

This year is also the first time the form is widely available online, and an overwhelming majority of census-takers have responded online, according to reports from the bureau.

But as outreach shifts into high gear with the census winding down, a good deal of uncertainty remains around the efficiency and accuracy of counting efforts on the Island.

Susan Silk, an Island resident who worked as an enumerator for two weeks this summer and wrote a commentary about her experience published in today’s edition, said the process of door-to-door interviewing was highly disorganized, with so many properties on the Island un-numbered and nestled down long, bumpy roads.

“What works in a city might not work in a suburb, and certainly doesn’t work in rural communities,” Ms. Silk said. “I believe that rural communities by percentage will be the venue most undercounted.”

Mr. Elvin echoed the sentiment. “There wasn’t a lot of coordination between the U.S. Census Bureau and Island partners, and maybe a kind of lack of understanding as to Island demographics and what our challenges actually are,” he said.

Jeff Behler, director for the census bureau’s New York regional office, agreed that rural populations face specific challenges in the count. “It’s hard just to find that proxy person who can tell us that this is a second home or no one usually lives there,” he said.

In another wrinkle, the census bureau does not report data for non-response followup by county, Mr. Chatinover said. The bureau only releases estimates for how many households were visited in person.

According to Mr. Behler, 47 census takers were hired in Dukes County and over 11,000 in the commonwealth. As of Tuesday, the East Bridgewater region — which includes the Cape and Islands — had a 78.7 per cent completion rate.

Without complete, concrete data, tracking the Island’s progress remains a challenge, Island officials said.

“We’re shooting in the dark right now because we don’t know the percentage of self-response plus door knockers,” said Mr. Chatinover. “We know they’re out there, we know they’re doing good work, we just don’t know how much they’ve done.”

Stakes for the count are high, with census numbers used to determine funding for social services, education and highway and road improvements in local areas. It is also used to redraw legislative districts.

Ms. Silk said she worried that the current political climate might negatively affect response rates, with fears around census confidentiality and a failed citizenship question further disincentivizing historically undercounted population from responding.

The curtailment of the response period might have also had a negative impact, Mr. Chatinover said. “Not having that month hurts,” he said.

Still, he said he is pleased with efforts on the Island so far.

“Our expectation and our goal is to leave no stone unturned,” he said.

Mr. Elvin agreed. “It’s a race to the finish at this point, but we feel like we’re using all the resources we have.”