Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Montana Ranks Low In Census Return Rate

The Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission discusses 2020 Census return rates on June 10.
Montana Public Affairs Network
The Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission discusses 2020 Census return rates on June 10.


Montana has the seventh lowest 2020 Census return rate among all states after one fifth of its households weren’t initially mailed invitations to participate. Counting has been especially difficult in rural reaches of the Treasure State.

Roughly 52 percent of Montanans have responded to the U.S. Census Bureau so far, according to an update delivered to the state Districting and Apportionment Commission on Wednesday. That’s about nine percent lower than the nationwide return average, which alarmed Joe Lamson and other commissioners.

“I’m fearful that we are setting ourselves up for a major undercount in both our rural counties as well as our reservation communities at this point," Lamson said. 

A lot is riding on the Census, including millions in federal funding and whether Montana gets a second seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. But the novel coronavirus pandemic halted field work for several months. State census chief Mary Craigle said that was a serious bottleneck in Montana, which relies heavily on door-to-door info drop offs.

The state wants to reach a minimum goal of 60 percent self-response in each county, which only Cascade, Lewis and Clark, Missoula, Silver Bow and Yellowstone have reached so far. Each of those counties has sizable urban populations and strong broadband internet access.

The Census Bureau doesn’t mail invitations to P.O. boxes and many rural route addresses, however, so 20 percent of Montana households didn’t initially receive paperwork. Many rural counties feature return rates of 20 percent or lower.

“These low percentages are very concerning. We have a long way to go,” Craigle said. 

Craigle said almost no households in Indian country were mailed census info. Workers fill those gaps by leaving questionnaires at door steps, but that hasn’t happened on all of Montana’s reservations yet. Six of them have a return rate of 16 percent or lower.

“If we don’t have these rural counties and our native populations properly counted we’re not going to be getting that second congressman," Jeff Essmann, districting and apportionment commissioner, said. 

Craigle says census workers could start knocking on the doors of non-responders in August.