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Census Workers Rush To Count Montanans Under Uncertain Deadline

A colorful billboard with three figures, one on horseback, says, "Our people count: 2020 Census."
Kaitlyn Nicholas
Yellowstone Public Radio
A hand painted Census 2020 sign created by a local young artist in collaboration with Indigenous Creative Ben Pease, stands beside I-90 in Crow Agency. A "Natives Count" sign created by Montana Native Vote stands beside it.

As an uncertain deadline for the census looms, organizers and Get Out the Count workers are rushing to get as many people counted as possible.

Just off the interstate, in Crow Agency, workers wearing masks and carrying clipboards help drivers fill out census forms. To socially distance, one worker speaking in Apsáalooke, the Crow language, explains the form through the passenger side window.

Today, they're offering cold Pepsies and Visa gift cards to those who stop, as an incentive for citizens to learn about the census and get their family counted.

"We're saying, ‘Hey, this is why it's important. Do you see our roads? We have these strategically placed potholes. We need those fixed,'" says Lauri Kindness, a regional organizer for Western Native Voice, a nonprofit partnering with the State's Complete Count Committee. "Do you see our schools? They need their computers and their books paid for, this is part of how it gets funded."

Kindness says these drive-through events are a way of getting more people counted while staying safe.

On the wall of the laundromat behind her, Ben Pease, an Indigenous Creative, is painting a mural of historical and contemporary figures from the region to inspire his community to complete the census.

"The census is an expression of our sovereignty if we take the initiative to fill it out." Pease says. "Because we see that it has far reaching effects into our economy and our infrastructure and our healthcare and everything, everything! It has fingers everywhere."

Pease collaborated with local youth artists to create Census 2020 signs that are now placed throughout the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations and other parts of the state.

These efforts continue despite national uncertainty of when the census deadline will be enforced. Kindness says this isn't stopping her work right now.

"Now it sounds like things are shaky and in the air, but what my guidance was, was to just keep on driving with the mission. It’s work that's not done in vain," says Kindness.

The deadline has shifted several times this summer.

In April, the Census Bureau moved the deadline to Oct. 31 to make up for lost time during the pandemic. Last month, the Bureau announced they would revert to their previous plan to end field operations and the count on Sept. 30.

Last Friday, a federal judge moved the census deadline back to the end of October. Later that day, the Justice Department announced that the Trump administration would appeal the judge's deadline ruling.

In a tweet Monday, the Census Bureau said they would halt all field operations and set a target date of Oct. 5 to end self-reporting.

On Sept. 30, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals denied the Census Bureau’s request to end the count by early October.

Emilie Ritter Saunders with the Montana Department of Commerce says right now the state is working under the Oct. 31 deadline.

"The state is going to continue to do everything it can, right up through the finish line, to make sure Montanans know that they can still respond to the census," said Ritter Saunders.

"However, Montana should know that they should respond to the census right now. Do it today. Don't put it off any longer. Don't wait."

Following the judge’s extension Friday, Gov. Steve Bullock diverted more federal Coronavirus Relief Funds for census outreach for a total of more than $650,000.

Ritter Saunders says when the Bureau shut down field operations from March until May, it put Montana behind in getting counted.

"Montana is currently among the bottom of States. 59.9% of Montanans have self responded. That means someone has actively filled out the form on their own. The national average for self response is 66.5%," Ritter Saunders said.

She says the census is critically important. "The census is incredibly important to Montana and it doesn't just matter today, but it matters for the next decade. The state receives more than $2 billion every year from the federal government based on census data."

Kaitlyn Nicholas covers tribal news in Montana.