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Census could still deliver second U.S. House seat for Montana

Census could still deliver second U.S. House seat for Montana

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A late push in U.S. Census responses has observers hopeful Montana could still be in the mix for a second U.S. House seat, despite a court-ordered pause of the count.

Montana reached the final days of the U.S. Census with 60.3% of its households responding by choice. U.S. Census workers pushed the number of homes that federal officials consider counted to 99.9%, although state officials say the response might actually be lower, in which case Montana won’t know for sure until year’s end.

“We know that the census has resolved a lot of the households in Montana. We don’t know if everyone has been counted, though. That’s going to make a big difference and it's very much up in the air,” said Kendra Miller of Montana’s Districting and Apportionment Commission.

Montana seemed like a lock for a new House seat at the beginning of the year. The state’s estimated population was slightly larger than Rhode Island’s. Rhode Island has the lowest population of any state with more than one House district.

Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit just weeks before census work was to begin in Montana. What followed was a series of sputtering challenges to Montana’s population count, the latest being a U.S. Supreme Court order that the national count be paused at day's end Thursday to accommodate a lawsuit between non-federal governments and advocacy groups against President Donald Trump's administration, which had tried to end the census by Sept. 30.

The census can still be completed online through Thursday 2020Census.gov

The U.S. Census had struggled before the pandemic to recruit employees for the census ground game. There were better jobs available than knocking on doors for the census, said Jeff Essmann, a commission member from Billings.

The federal government had planned to hire about 2,000 people to contact Montana households that didn’t fill out census information voluntarily. They got about half that many people, but then COVID-19 hit and interest in going door-to-door crashed.

Additionally, U.S. Census suspended the count from March through May because of the pandemic. When the count launched again, the cutoff date was in doubt. At one point, the U.S. Census was to wrap up Oct. 31, but then the agency indicated it would stop a month earlier, on Sept. 30.

Lawsuits over the cutoff date ensued, with states and advocacy groups arguing that Trump not be allowed to end the count before Oct. 31. State and local governments, as well as nonprofit groups, argued that stopping the count in September would result in a low population estimate, which would disadvantage communities in many ways, including less federal funding for government programs and also representation in Congress. The state estimates that $2 billion in federal funding for 300 government programs was at stake for Montana. 

Joe Lamson, a veteran of Montana's political districting struggles, credited U.S. Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines with getting the U.S. Census Bureau to send more census workers to Montana to help complete the count. Getting people out on doorsteps for the count in rural areas was crucial.

"Because of Montana's rural nature and having so many P.O. boxes, we knew 20% of the people were never going to get a mail contact," Lamson said. "The way to deal with it, is you have more people out there. They estimated about 2,200 people to do it right in Montana. We never got above 1,200 in Montana, even with the push, but it was used extremely efficiently."

If Montana were to gain a seat in the U.S. House, it would be the first state to regain a seat previously lost. Montana lost its second House seat after the 1990 Census. 

Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court paused the census count while the legal battle carried on in a federal appeals court. The count must be finished at day’s end Thursday. Observers say it's unlikely the count would relaunch yet again because of a decision in the federal courts. The census results must be submitted to the president by the end of December. There isn’t time for another round of counting at the end of a still-roiling legal battle.

With the census count scheduled to end Thursday, the race was back on to sweep through Montana areas where the count had been slow, or not happened at all. At times, several tribal governments attempting to stop the spread of COVID-19 had shut down all nonessential business including the census count on reservations.

“There were a number of reservations that were closed for various reasons, for various time periods, that complicated the Census Bureau’s task. The good news is those were overcome,” Essmann said. “I’m glad the leaders of the tribal governments recognized the importance.”

The big concern for the past few weeks has been the count on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, which has been shut down to stem the spread of COVID-19. Fort Peck Reservation is in Roosevelt County, where at one point 1 person in 50 was testing positive for COVID-19.

Tuesday, the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux tribes allowed census workers onto the reservation to reach roughly 500 households that hadn’t been counted. Two hours later, the Supreme Court issued its ruling that the count be paused the end of Thursday.

Montana’s census count was in rough shape at the end of September, Miller said. The state had one of the poorest responses in the nation. The rush in the first two weeks of October helped.

“We were right in the bottom five of the country through Sept. 30 and even into October. It’s been really important that we had two extra weeks to keep counting. And now they’re almost entirely resolved except for Fort Peck Reservation,” Miller said. The race for Fort Peck was on Wednesday.

The percentage of Montanans who took the initiative to submit census information, at 60.3% was the below the national average of 66%, said Emilie Ritter Saunders, Montana Department of Commerce communications director. What that means is that census workers working the doors will determine whether Montana's population count is adequate. The U.S. Census Bureau put Montana's count at 99.9% complete, meaning that an attempt was made to gather information from every household, including those where there was never a response. Whether that leg work produced an accurate count won't be known for a few months.

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