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Missoulian editorial

Montana is counting on 2020 census

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Montana is not the only state hoping to pick up another seat in the U.S. House of Representatives following the official census count taking place this year. Last week, the U.S. Census Bureau released its latest projections that put Montana in the running with five other states.

Montana lost its second representative some 30 years ago, leaving it the most populous district with only a single vote in the House in the nation at the time. In the years since, the state’s population has steadily increased — but not as much as some other states.

The 2020 census will provide an official population tally that could lead to a re-apportionment of the nation’s 435 representatives. The determination may come down to a difference of only a few thousand residents.

But that’s only one of the reasons why it’s crucial for every Montanan to be counted in the census. This constitutionally mandated nationwide tally, which takes place every 10 years, also provides important information about demographics, helping to draw trends that allow for better policy planning. Montana will use it to redraw Senate and House districts for the state Legislature to ensure equal representation. Massive amounts of federal funding will hinge on that data as well; a miscount could leave the state short of money to support essential infrastructure, education programs, health care services and many others.

Montana Native Vote is one group working to ensure that the census includes everyone in Montana’s reservation communities, whose participation in past counts has been hindered by a number of factors, including their relative remoteness. The census accepts answers by mail and by phone and this year, for the first time, it will also provide a way for answers to be submitted online.

While the online option will undoubtedly prove useful in boosting participation, it won’t be of much help to those in rural communities that lack reliable internet access.

Montana Native Vote has been working to hire census outreach workers to visit reservation communities in person, remind them of the importance of the census and allay any unfounded fears about what sort of information is collected, and what exactly the government might do with it.

Most fundamentally, the census attempts to count the entire U.S. population and all its households. It seeks to collect basic information such as a name, relationship to other household members, sex, age, date of birth and race. Individual information is protected by federal law and cannot be shared with any other federal agency. Rather, it is compiled into statistical data.

The state receives more than $2 billion each year in federal funding that is based on information provided by Census data. It works out to about $2,000 per resident. Missing even 1% of Montana’s population could cost Montana $300 million over the next decade.

Historically, as in many parents’ experience, children have proven a difficult demographic to pin down. After comparing responses to vital statistics, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated it undercounted children younger than 4 years old by about 5%. For Native American children, it was off by about 14%.

Other groups that have been hard to count: homeless individuals, transient workers and renters, certain minorities, those who don’t speak fluent English and those who don’t trust their government enough to fill out an official survey.

Montana’s 34-member Complete Count Committee is tasked with coordinating information and resources to ensure that all these groups are included. Locally focused Complete County Committees have been formed to tackle issues unique to different regions of Montana.

And the U.S. Census Bureau will need to hire hundreds of temporary workers to assist with a variety of duties, from field work to office work. The starting pay ranges from $17 to $19.50 per hour; no previous experience is required although a background check is. Apply online at

Montana Women Vote recently sent out a concise timeline to keep in mind for the coming months:

  • March 2020: Every home will receive an invitation to participate in the 2020 Census. Once the invitation arrives, you should respond for your home in one of three ways: online, by phone, or by mail.
  • April 1, 2020: Census Day is observed nationwide. When you respond to the census, you tell the Census Bureau where you live as of April 1, 2020.
  • May 2020: The Census Bureau begins visiting homes that haven't responded to the 2020 Census to make sure everyone is counted.

Those home visits are the most costly for the Census Bureau, which was appropriated $7.3 billion by Congress last year to ensure a thorough, accurate decennial count of each and every person in the United States. The very first census, in 1790, counted just under 4 million people. The 2010 census counted nearly 309 million.

It will be interesting to see what changes the 2020 census results will bring. But first, every Montanan must be sure to fulfill this important civic duty, to stand up and be counted.

This editorial represents the views of the Missoulian editorial board: Publisher Jim Strauss, Editor Gwen Florio and Opinion Editor Tyler Christensen.

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