Associated Press/Report for America
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 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, a Montana's Districting and Apportionment Commission member, 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 percent 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," Williams said. "The more members you have, the more policy you influence."
Williams said the state's size also makes another representative crucial. Montana is 15 times larger than Vermont — one of seven states with a lone House representative.
"Trying to travel that for one person, and do a decent job, is impossible for one member," he said.
Miller said she's been disheartened watching the possibility of that seat slip away. "It's really difficult to be waiting for relief from the court, not knowing what's going to happen," she said.
The pandemic temporarily halted in-person census operations nationwide, and rural households in Montana with P.O. Boxes didn't receive mailed census notifications.
Another blow came in August when the Census Bureau moved the counting deadline to the end of September after earlier announcing an extension through October over the pandemic.
The truncated window sent workers racing to complete a count in Montana with a pared-down staff.
"We're big, we're rural. It takes time for these enumerators to go door-to-door," Miller said.
In an August report, the bureau stated it needed 2,000 census takers, also called enumerators, to complete Montana's count. As of Sept. 28, it had hired only 1,126, including 193 out-of-state individuals, according to an email from a census official obtained by The Associated Press.
The small number of census takers has left nearly 29,000 households that have not been visited as of Sept. 28, according to the email.
The figures look worse on the state's tribal lands. The August report estimated a need for 50 enumerators on the Crow Reservation and 20 on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. As of Sept. 15, the bureau had hired only five takers for the Crow Tribe and one for the Northern Cheyenne Tribe.
A Census Bureau spokesperson said the low unemployment rate before the pandemic and the fear of door-to-door work that came after exacerbated the hiring difficulties.
An extension would give Montana's enumerators a chance to overcome these challenges, getting closer to the coveted second House seat.
"Any time we get, we're going to take advantage of," Miller said.
Samuels is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.