Montana’s top statewide elected officials are bitterly divided on the topic of including a question asking people on the 2020 Census if they are U.S. citizens.

The two Democrats, Gov. Steve Bullock and U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, deride the question as an expensive taxpayer-funded political ploy to stoke racial and ethnic tensions and discourage people from participating. The two Republicans, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, say Montana shouldn’t lose federal funding to other states with more non-citizens, and that it’s logical to want to know whether people are citizens or not.

This week, Daines introduced the Citizens Count Census Act of 2019 in the U.S. Senate. The bill would include the citizenship question on all government census forms.

"This is America," Daines said in a statement. "We are a sovereign nation. It's absurd that we don't know how many citizens and non-citizens are living in this country. That's why I'm introducing this bill to require a citizenship question on the census.”

Republicans have a slim majority in the U.S. Senate, and the U.S. Supreme Court is currently considering whether to block or approve the controversial question.

Tester alluded to the fact that the U.S. Census Bureau’s chief scientist told Trump administration officials in an internal memo that the citizenship question would add between $27.5 million and $55 million to the cost of the census because the bureau would have to follow-up on non-responses.

“The goal of the census is to get an accurate count of every person who lives in this country, and this question purposely undermines that process by injecting it with partisan politics,” Tester said in an email. “It is nothing more than an expensive, taxpayer-funded political ploy by some politicians seeking to boost their re-election chances.”

Bullock sent a letter to the House Oversight and Reform Committee last year deriding the question.

“The federal officials who administer the Census have a special public trust: follow the Constitution, and steer clear of political games that would distort the results of the Census,” Bullock wrote. “After all, simply counting shouldn’t be that hard. There is no place for the ugly, racial history of gerrymandering to rear its head again through the Census.”

Bullock’s office said he wanted to express concerns that the new question would disproportionately target underrepresented communities and it would “threaten to dilute the voices of American Indians, Hispanics, Asian Americans, African Americans and others in our democratic system of government.”

Bullock said the question would “chill” participation and might cause an undercounting of people in areas with large minority populations. He noted said that in the 1990 Census, American Indians were undercounted on U.S. Reservations by 12%.

“Montanans have first-hand experience with the effects of undercounting in the Census," Bullock said. "According to the National Congress of American Indians and the Native American Rights Fund, in the most recent Census (in 2010), nearly five% of Native people on reservations were missed, more than double the undercount rate of the next closest population group.”

But Gianforte hinted that states with large numbers of non-citizens might qualify for more federal funding without the question.

“There’s no reason the census shouldn’t ask about citizenship,” he said in a statement. “Information collected determines states’ funding for many federal programs and how many representatives a state has in Congress. Montana shouldn’t be shorted on either simply because a sanctuary city or state violates the law.”

The Supreme Court’s decision, which is expected to come any week now, could affect Montana’s ability to get a new congressional district after the census. Montana is one of a few states that is experiencing enough population growth to qualify, but that depends on whether other states are growing faster.

Joe Lamson, a longtime Montana Democratic operative, told the Missoulian last week that he thinks Montana should get two districts. Lamson was appointed to Montana's District and Apportionment Commission by Democrats in the Montana Legislature. So, because the citizenship question has been predicted by experts to possibly dampen turnout in states like Texas and California that are competing with Montana for one of the 435 Congressional districts, that means something the Democrats want, another district, could come by way of the citizenship question, something at least Bullock and Tester are against.

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