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Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney sent a letter to U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on Tuesday urging Ross to return to an extended deadline of Oct. 31 for census operations.

On Monday the U.S. Census Bureau said it will end field operations and close self-response options Sept. 30, reversing a decision earlier this year that lengthened the census timeline because of the coronavirus pandemic. Stay-at-home orders and other social distancing measures have paused and delayed census work.

At stake for Montana in the census county is an estimated $2,000 in federal funding for each person counted, as well as the potential for adding a second seat in the U.S. House. The state redistricting commission will also use census data to redraw legislative districts.

“If the Census Bureau continues to move the goal posts of the decennial count, we fear communities in Montana will go uncounted and therefore unrepresented in our democracy,” Bullock and Cooney wrote.

“Without an accurate count the fabric of Montana will be detrimentally impacted for at least the next 10 years.”

Cooney is chairman of the Montana Census Complete Count Committee.

The letter estimates that about 525,000 Montanans have not yet responded to the census and only 56.6% of households have been counted.

Montana struggled when the census paused field operations because of the pandemic. Workers who go door-to-door are critical in rural areas where people have P.O. boxes or rural route mail addresses, where the census does not mail invitations to participate. This is the first time people can respond to the census online, but this is also difficult in areas without good access to broadband.

The letter from the governor’s administration says most residents living on two of the state’s seven reservations have not received their invitation. Door-knockers wouldn’t start work until mid-August, the letter continues, which is just six weeks before the deadline.

The 2019 Legislature directed $100,000 toward census promotion and advertisement of the census. Bullock additionally put $530,500 in funding from federal coronavirus aid toward the effort, dramatically increasing the budget.

The money will be split among three groups — the Montana Nonprofit Association, Western Native Voice and Forward Montana Foundation — to do outreach in areas where the self-response rate is low.

The state Department of Commerce is also hiring Windfall, a Missoula-based ad agency, to try to contact households in low-response areas of Montana with radio, newspaper, television and digital advertising.

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