HELENA — A federal judge has temporarily halted the winding down efforts of the Trump administration for the 2020 census count but Montana officials say the ruling hasn’t changed their efforts to make sure every Montanan is counted by Sept. 30.
As the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the country the U.S. Census Bureau postponed key parts of their population count until August. At the time, the Trump administration said they were going to delay the deadline for the count from Sep. 30 until Oct. 31 to give more time to ensure an accurate count.
The administration reversed course on Aug. 3 to move back to the original deadline, an action that is currently being challenged in court. A US District Court in Northern California ordered the Census Bureau to halt its plans to end counting until a hearing can be held on the matter next week.
The lawsuit challenging the Census Bureau was filed by the National Urban League, the League of Women Voters and various local governments. It argues that the order to end the head-counting portion of the census early could lead to an inaccurate tally that will cost communities political representation and millions of federal dollars.
The State of Montana says they’re working as if the Sep. 30 deadline is set in stone.
“Should the court require the Census Bureau to extend the deadline, we’ll take full advantage of every single day that is available," said Montana Department of Commerce spokeswoman Emilie Ritter Saunders. "But given that the goalposts have continued to move on the 2020 Census throughout the last year, we’re doing all we can to make sure Montanans respond to the census."
The 2020 Census count will have a huge impact on Montana for the next decade as the state receives billions of federal dollars tied to the count -- and may end up with an additional seat in Congress. But only if people are accurately counted.
Saunders says unfortunately many of the reasons Montanans love to live in Big Sky Country present significant challenges with the census count. The state encompasses 147,000 square miles and many households have P.O boxes which won’t receive a census mailer.
“Our response rate is among the bottom of states. We’re at 58.7% self-reporting compared to the national average of 65.5%,” said Saunders. Additionally, as of Sept. 9, seven of Montana’s reservations had a response rate of 34% or less.
The census count itself is conducted by the federal government, with federal workers currently going door to door to try and get more people counted.
The State of Montana has been making efforts to raise more awareness. On June 22, Gov. Steve Bullock allocated $530,000 of CARES Act funding to the Department of Commerce in order to help with census promotion.
State partners including the Forward Montana Foundation, the Montana Nonprofit Foundation, and Western Native Voice are actively reaching out to low count areas including reservations and other rural areas. Windfall, an ad agency located in Missoula, won a competitive bid with the Department of Commerce worth $200,000 to target low response areas.
The state is seeing daily improvement in census responses and encourages Montanans to spread the word about getting counted.
“One of the things Montanans can do is make sure they talk to their friends and neighbors about it,” Saunders said. “Post on your social media account. We’re asking folks all over the state to really raise awareness that the Census is still happening, you can still respond.”
State officials stress that you don’t need to receive a mailer in order to complete your census. Anyone can go to My2020Census.gov or call 1-844-330-2020 anytime before Sept. 30 to be counted.