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Montana may pick up a second U.S. House seat

Montana may pick up a second U.S. House seat

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A poll of Montanans found that less than 40% of residents knew the state once had two Congressional representatives. But according to at least six census projections, Montana could soon have two again.

The latest Big Sky Poll by the University of Montana asked 303 residents if they knew the highest number of U.S. Representatives that Montana ever had. While only 39% of people knew the right answer, two, it was the most selected choice, with the next most popular answer being “Don’t know,” at 28%.

Montana had two representatives in the House from 1913 to 1993, but with census models showing stagnant populations in other states, Montana may regain its second representative.

Joe Lamson, a member of the 2020 Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission, said the state is in a good position to gain.

“To pick up the seat, the state has to not only grow, but grow faster than the national average, which we’ve been doing for the last three years of projections,” Lamson said. “All six models are saying we’ll gain a seat because there’s been a loss throughout the Midwest and Rust Belt states.”

The Districting and Apportionment Commission works with census results to ensure fair representation in the state and federal government. The commission will oversee any changes to district boundaries and will work to split the state if it does pick up a second seat in the House. 

While Montana's population may justify gaining a representative, if the census is inaccurate because people don't fill it out, the effects can be dramatic.

According to the Montana Department of Commerce's Census and Economic Information Center, in the 2000 census, an estimated 14,390 residents went uncounted. Because federal funding is based on population, those missed residents resulted in $21 million less federal funding for Montana. 

Efforts are underway to make sure everyone is counted, but Lamson said Montana has traditionally under-performed in its census turnout.

"We do have some problem areas; rural areas tend to get under counted, low income areas, reservations are very difficult to count," he said. "Some of the areas in the northwest part of the state where you've got basically people who are suspicious of government, they tend to have lower participation."

While areas of lower income tend to be harder to accurately measure, Lamson said those areas stand to benefit the most from accurate counts, as much of the federal funding goes toward things like food assistance, Medicaid and other social welfare programs.

Jeff Essmann, another appointee to the districting commission, said members of both major political parties want to see an accurate count, as it's in the interest of all Montanans to regain its additional seat in Congress. 

"Obviously one congressman can only be on so many committees, so we lost representation on a bunch of committees when we lost that seat," said Essmann, a former Republican state legislator from Billings. "It has made the job of our congressman a very difficult job."

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