Montana presses to finish census, eyeing 2nd House seat

HELENA, Mont. — A complete count of Montana’s households could come with a big reward — a second seat in Congress and millions of federal dollars annually. But the 2020 census deadline remains in flux, making it uncertain if census takers will finish counting the vast, rural state.

Projections show that Montana would gain another seat in the U.S. House of Representatives after the census, but a study published earlier this month found that a shortened deadline for collecting data could cost the state the rewards. The findings gained urgency Monday when the Census Bureau pulled forward the deadline to Oct. 5.

The study, published by the American Statistical Association, found that under the Sept. 30 deadline, both Montana and Florida could lose seats in the U.S. House that they would have taken from California and Ohio were the deadline extended through October.

With over 1 million people, Montana’s congressional district is the nation’s most populous. Experts say a second House seat is a prize the state can scarcely afford to lose.

The situation is even more urgent for the state’s eight Native American tribes, which rely on an accurate census count for federal aid worth millions of dollars. Without an extended deadline, their tribal lands are poised for a historic undercount.

A judge gave Montana some hope when she issued a preliminary injunction on Sept. 25 to prevent the Trump administration from winding down census operations on Sept. 30. The last-minute ruling came after it emerged that top census officials believed a shortened deadline could hinder a full count.

But the ruling’s meaning remains unclear. On Monday, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce announced in a tweet that census takers would stop knocking on doors and questionnaires would be due Oct. 5, despite the ruling.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has appealed.

Kendra Miller with Montana’s Districting and Apportionment Commission said the uncertainty around the deadline has been “quite a rollercoaster” and she hopes Congress will extend it.

She said the census operations, hampered by the pandemic, have been “like a train heading for a crash.”

Recent Census Bureau data shows that less than 95% of Montana households have been counted, with just Louisiana and Alabama tallying less. In more than 30 states, over 98% of households have been counted.

“We continue to watch all these other states move closer and closer to complete enumeration, and we simply can’t get there on time,” Miller said.

Former Montana Rep. Pat Williams, in the U.S. House from 1979 to 1997, called a second congressional seat “essential.”

With House members limited to sitting on two committees, another for Montana could double the state’s impact in promoting legislation important to Montana, Williams said.

When Williams was first elected to the House, the state had two representatives. After the 1990 census, the state lost its second seat. Montana’s lone representative has typically served on the agriculture and natural resources committees — critical areas to the state.

“But Montana has more interests than agriculture and national parks,”

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