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Montana Officials Worry New Census Deadline Could Lead To Undercount

The Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission discusses census turnout during a meeting on Aug. 4, 2020.
Montana Public Affairs Network
The Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission discusses census turnout during a meeting on Aug. 4, 2020.

State officials are worried a new sped up federal deadline could jeopardize Montana’s chances of getting an accurate census total. The once a decade count has large implications for the Treasure State.

In April, the U.S. Census Bureau announced it would push the counting deadline back a month to Oct. 31 because the coronavirus pandemic had halted field operations across the U.S.

Monday, the bureau said counting will end Sept. 30 after all.

During a Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission meeting Tuesday, state census chief Mary Craigle said the news isn’t being received well.

“I can tell you one thing for sure, the Census Bureau staff is not excited about not having the extension. They are very concerned,” Craigle said.

That’s because about 40 percent of the country hasn’t responded to the census. The situation is worse in Montana, which has the fifth lowest response rate among states.

Census results will determine how much federal funding Montana receives and whether the state will get a second seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. The Districting and Apportionment Commission will also use the data to redraw the boundaries of Montana’s congressional and legislative districts.

“We absolutely need people to respond,” Craigle said.

Rural counties and Native American reservations have some of Montana’s lowest response rates so far.

Part of the issue is the Census Bureau doesn’t mail invitations to P.O. boxes and many rural route addresses, so 20 percent of Montana households didn’t initially receive paperwork. For those homes, workers instead leave questionnaires at door steps. Though such activities have resumed in recent weeks, Craigle says residents of the Crow Reservation still haven’t all received questionnaires.

“Those rates are starting to uptick on their self response. So it is showing up, it’s just sometimes painfully slow,” Craigle said.

University of Montana political scientist Sara Rinfret was invited to speak during Tuesday’s commission meeting. She says an inaccurate census count could lead to redistricting that solidifies existing power structures to the detriment of traditionally disenfranchised communities.

“So who’s representing the voices of the voiceless,” Rinfret said.

Census workers will begin knocking on doors this month for nonresponse follow up, but Districting and Apportionment commissioners questioned the potential of that strategy during a pandemic. A new Pew Research Center survey found four in 10 adults who haven’t yet responded say they would not be willing to answer the door for a census worker.

On Tuesday, Gov. Steve Bullock and Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney sent U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross a letter urging a return to the October counting deadline. They wrote that the Census Bureau suspending field operations put Montana in “a position from which it may not be able to recover”.

The same day, the Districting and Apportionment Commission voted to send Montana’s congressional delegation a letter expressing concern about achieving an accurate census count by Sept. 30. Four members of the commission were selected, one each, by the majority and minority leaders in the state House and Senate. Because those members couldn’t agree on their presiding officer, the state Supreme Court appointed the fifth commissioner.

Commissioner Joe Lamson says lawmakers should try to push back the statutory deadline requiring the president receive census results by Dec. 31.

“If these rural counties don’t come in, I just shudder to think how much less representation and voices they’re going to have at the Legislature,” Lamson said.

Commissioner Kendra Miller says an undercount in Montana could benefit another state. Minnesota is considered likely to lose one of its House seats due to reapportionment, but its census response rate is 16 percent higher than Montana’s.

“That’s why we need that additional time,” Miller said.

This week, the state announced it will spend roughly half a million dollars of federal coronavirus relief funds on census outreach. An advertising agency will issue public service announcements and three nonprofits will each target Montana’s youth, Indigenous and rural populations.

But state census chief Mary Craigle still worries how they’ll reach Montanans distracted by the pandemic, upcoming elections and how they’re going to spend the rest of their summer weekends.

“So to try to get the messaging to folks at the lake, where they need to be socially distancing correctly and enjoying life, this has become quite the challenge,” Craigle said.

Craigle says this has been the most difficult census in modern history.