"Strengthening our Party for the 2010 elections is going to take a massive grass-roots effort all across America. That is why I have authorized a Census to be conducted of every Congressional District in the country," GOP Chairman Michael Steele says in a letter mailed nationwide.
The letter was sent in plain white envelopes marked "Do Not Destroy, Official Document." Labeled "2010 Congressional District Census," the letter uses a capital "C," the same as the Census Bureau. It also includes a "Census Tracking Code."
The letter makes a plea for money and accompanies a form asking voters to identify their political leanings and issues important to them. There are no disclaimers that participation in the GOP effort is voluntary; participation in the government census is required by law. Failure to participate carries a $5,000 fine, though it is rarely enforced.
Sara Sendek, a Republican National Committee spokeswoman, said the letter was not an attempt to mislead voters.
"The document clearly indicates that it is an RNC mailer. The purpose of this document is to gather Republican opinion from across the country and raise a little money," Sendek said.
The letter asks political questions, including, "Do you think the record trillion dollar federal deficit the Democrats are creating with their out-of-control spending is going to have disastrous consequences for our nation?" and, "Do you worry that the Obama administration is committed to greatly expanding the government's role in your life?"
Democrats said the letter was part of a deceptive pattern by Republicans. They said it could mislead voters to believe it's part of the nationwide census being conducted this year. The Census Bureau officially begins its head count this week in rural Alaska; the count for the rest of the nation begins in March.
"When you have no new ideas to offer, all you are left with are the deceptive ideas," said Hari Sevugan, a Democratic National Committee spokesman.
U.S. Census Bureau spokesman Michael Cook says he has received several complaints over the past week from voters who believed the letter was misleading. Cook says the agency is still deciding what steps to take.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., asked the Postal Service to investigate complaints about the letters in December and was rebuffed. Ken Currier, manager of government relations for the postal service, said it's clear the document was not from the government. Maloney said she is considering legislation to make it clear such mailings are not allowed.
Among the recipients was Democratic Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, whose letter arrived at the governor's mansion.
"The Republicans have said they want to get a bigger tent," Schweitzer told The Associated Press, "so perhaps they are trying to lure a politician into the Republican Party that can actually balance a budget."