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Montana Faces Unique Counting Challenges With 2020 Census

A remote Montana ranch in Liberty County, August 16, 2009.
J. Stephen Conn/Flickr User (CC-by-2.0)
A remote Montana ranch in Liberty County, August 16, 2009.

The 2020 Census will have a big impact on how federal money and Congressional seats are distributed to states over the next decade. In a rural state like Montana, long distances between residents add extra challenges for getting the complete population count.

Montana’s Census Manager Mary Craigle says a wrong count could come down to something like bad weather. She remembers what workers had to do while counting the last census in 2010.

“My understanding was they were literally taking snowmobiles to some areas in order to reach those areas. I don’t know if other states have that same problem but especially along the northern tier, we have many, many ranches. They’re harder to reach and more difficult,” says Craigle.

Montana’s sparsely populated plains, tight-knit Native American reservation communities and a large population of seasonal workers and university students present unique challenges to pinning down a total statewide headcount. With less than a year before the count begins, Craigle and other Montana government officials considered how to navigate these challenges with Ron Jarmin, the U.S. Census Bureau Deputy Director, in Bozeman Monday.

Craigle and Jarmin agree on the importance of hiring local census workers who are trusted in their communities, especially on Native American reservations.

“In Indian country that’s an absolutely critical thing. You can’t just have folks who aren’t affiliated with the tribe, walking around, knocking on doors,” says Jarmin.

Jarmin adds a lack of addresses and limited internet access are also challenges on tribal land.

“And so finding ways to use community centers and other events to be another focal point for getting people together and work with tribal leaders to respond to the census is something we’ve been trying to focus on.”

Jarmin says anyone residing in Montana on April first will be included in the count for the state. This means university students would go towards the overall tally, even if they live somewhere else during the summer. Montana State University plans on rolling out a campaign to encourage students to participate in the census.

Melody Mileur, Communications Coordinator for the City of Bozeman, says the city and Gallatin County face a lot of addressing challenges.

“Not only do we have a lot of short-term rentals, we have a lot of secondary living spaces and accessory dwelling units that are kind of popping up all over the place. Basements are getting converted and we don’t know about it. So those addressing efforts are really critical for us,” says Mileur.

She says they are also trying to figure out how to reach people who live in hotels or may be transient.

The 2020 Census form will be available online for the first time in U.S. history. Households will receive a letter mid-March next year with instructions. Ron Jarmin with the Census Bureau says forms — whether online, over the phone or on paper — will be counted even if they are not completely filled out.

Also new next year could be a question about American citizenship. 

An attendee who says she has worked with undocumented workers in Montana asks, “So that follows to the citizenship question. That if it’s there and you choose not to answer it, that census tally will still be counted, correct? That will still be in the count?"

"So, the Census is mandatory by law," says Jarmin. "You’re supposed to fill out the Census completely and accurately.”

Jarmin says if you don’t fill it out completely, there’s an increased chance that the Census Bureau will follow-up with a call to your house.

The Supreme Court is still trying to determine whether to allow the Trump administration to add a question on citizenship to the 2020 census. Critics say it would discourage legal and unauthorized immigrants from filling out the forms, which would undermine the accuracy of the census.

Bozeman plans to release an awareness campaign later this spring to help people learn about the census.