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Montana officials have welcomed a U.S. District Court decision to extend the 2020 census deadline, providing an additional month to contact people as part of the decennial count, which has been challenged by the coronavirus pandemic.

U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh in the Northern District of California issued a preliminary injunction late Thursday that requires the U.S. Census Bureau to continue tallying residents until Oct. 31. She also extended the deadline for the president to deliver population data to Congress from the end of the year to April 2021.

On Friday, the U.S. Justice Department signaled it would appeal Koh’s decision, which, if successful, could mean the census deadlines could change again.

Gov. Steve Bullock applauded the U.S. District Court decision and asked the Justice Department to accept the new deadlines because they could help states like Montana “regain some of the ground we’ve lost due to COVID-19.”

As of Friday, Montana had the third worst enumeration rate in the country, with an estimated 92.6% of households counted.

Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney said the additional month could help the federal government count more Montanans.

“We are pulling out all the stops to encourage every Montanan to make sure they’re counted in this once-in-a-decade opportunity, and we will take full advantage of every day we can get,” said Cooney, who chairs the State Complete Count Committee, the Montana group assisting with the census.

Bullock announced Friday that he is allocating $130,000 from the federal coronavirus relief funds Montana received to the Department of Commerce to continue attempting to count residents in areas with low-response rates, including rural counties and tribal nations.

Bullock previously allocated $530,500 in June to the commerce department from the federal relief funds for the census. The agency used the money to partner with groups including the Montana Nonprofit Association, Western Native Voice and Forward Montana, which have organizers across the state encouraging residents to respond to the census.

The coronavirus pandemic paused door-knocking efforts from March to early May, making the count difficult.

In response, the federal government extended the deadline for field operations from the original deadline of July 31 to Oct. 31. The government later reversed its decision, declaring that fieldwork would end Sept. 30.

Congress, which could also change census deadlines in response to the pandemic, has not done so.

Montana’s senators support legislation that would continue field operations until Oct. 31, extend the deadline for delivering apportionment data to the U.S. House from Dec. 31 to April 30 and move the deadline for submitting redistricting data to states from March 31 to July 31.

Sen. Steve Daines, a Republican, said, “The 2020 Census will have a lasting impact on Montana; including the distribution of federal resources to the state and even the potential for more representation in Congress.”

On Friday, Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, said the Senate needed to take up the bill to ensure every Montanan is counted.

“Congress needs to put this issue to rest, and I urge Senator McConnell and my Republican colleagues to stop blocking my bipartisan legislation to give the Census Bureau the time it needs to get the job done,” he said.

Similar census extensions to those proposed in the Senate bill were included in the coronavirus relief package the U.S. House passed in May, which Montana Rep. Greg Gianforte voted against.

However, spokesperson Travis Hall said Gianforte supports extending the field operations deadline to Oct. 31 because he “believes all Montanans must be counted fully and accurately.”

Even a small undercount could have a significant impact on Montana. The state will receive nearly $2,000 annually in federal money for each resident counted, which means missing one person could result in the state losing out on $20,000 from the federal government because the census is conducted once each decade.

The census also serves as the basis for creating legislative districts and could lead to Montana gaining a second seat in the U.S. House.

Accurate population statistics are crucial at the local level as well, factoring into decisions such as where to build new roads and schools.

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Perrin Stein can be reached at pstein@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2648.

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