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Montana Officials Fear Undercount With Thursday Census Deadline

A color coded map showing county self response rates to the 2020 census.
U.S. Census Bureau
Montana trails behind the rest of the country, with an estimated 60 percent of households responding to the 2020 census compared to the national average of nearly 67 percent as of Oct. 14, 2020.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday granted the Trump Administration’s request to halt the Census 2020 count two weeks early. State officials are concerned Montana will be severely undercounted.

The U.S. Census Bureau announced Tuesday that all Census responses must be completed by the end of Thursday. The sudden change has Montana officials scrambling.

"Honestly, we’re working against the clock here," says Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney, the head of Montana’s Complete Count Committee.

"To change the rules in the middle of this process, in the middle of a pandemic, is just nonsensical. Frankly, I'm really upset about it because this could really hurt Montana in the long haul over the next 10 years," Cooney said.

An undercount could cost Montana a second Congressional representative and significant federal funding for education, healthcare and other infrastructure.

Marci McLean is the executive director of Western Native Voice, a nonprofit partner of the state’s Complete Count Committee. She learned about the Supreme Court’s decision during a staff meeting.

"Some of us were nearly moved to tears because of what this means for our Native American communities here," McLean said.

McLean says an undercount will have lasting financial impact on tribal communities already grappling with high poverty rates.

"It's devastating and it's a letdown by once again, the United States government to Native American people. Once again, politics and bureaucracy supersedes the general good of people or the general concern for the neighbor," she said.

The Bureau estimates roughly 60 percent of Montana households have responded to the census by phone, mail and online, compared to the national average of 67 percent as of Wednesday.

Many tribal nations have significantly lower response rates. Zach Brown from the Montana Nonprofit Association, another partner of the state’s census outreach team, says the undercount is partially due to a lack of staff. He says the Bureau only had about half the workers it needed in Montana, and no tribal specialists were hired.

"Fort Peck has at least 500 households that the Census Bureau admits they have not counted yet. That's going to harm that community in terms of representation and their access to federal resources for years to come," Brown said.

Montana’s Complete Committee and partners are continuing to make last-minute phone calls as a final push to increase the count.

Respond to the 2020 census here.

Kaitlyn Nicholas if Yellowstone Public Radio's Report for America tribal affairs reporter.

Kaitlyn Nicholas covers tribal news in Montana.