The Census has been slowed by the pandemic — meaning some states are still way behind and have gone to court to seek an extension past September 30. Hundreds of millions in federal aid and seats in Congress are at stake, and Montana has asked the Trump White House for an extension.
But with residents spread out and internet connections spotty, some Montana librarians have been trying to help the Census find a home on the range.
Montana has one member of Congress for its 147,000 square miles. The state believes it has enough people for a second House seat, something it has not held since 1993. But first, it has to prove it, through a successful census of its population of roughly 1 million.
So on the radio, at libraries and on bulletin boards, the message is as constant as the prairie wind: "Be counted."
That is more challenging than it sounds — take simple delivery by mail of a census form.
Most of Montana is rural, and many residents receive their mail at a post office box. The Census bureau only sends forms to addresses, and if the letter carrier doesn't match every post office box to the corresponding address, census forms go undelivered.
"Oftentimes, they don't have traditional mailing addresses and as a result, they have not received the notifications from the Census and so we have about a quarter of the state that has been not getting the information," said Montana Lieutenant Governor Mike Cooney. "Montana gets about $2 billion dollars a year from the federal government based on the Census. When we do not count a Montanan who should be counted, that equals about $20,000 over the 10-year period of the census."
Amid the pandemic, millions of Americans have filled out the census online, taking pressure off the postal service. Montana has a problem with that too — only 59% of rural Montanans have broadband internet.
"When you have a system for the first time where we're asking people to go on the computer and self-report and you don't have the ability to do that, then you have to make adjustments very quickly," Cooney said. "And that's why we've engaged libraries throughout the state where they do have connectivity."
Lynnette O'Connor said connectivity proved a bigger challenge than the standard 10 census questions. "Probably longer to get on the internet than to fill it out," she said.
The state outfitted its 119 libraries with high-speed internet – a real break for 88-year old Rolph Tunby.
"I don't use the computer all that much, and it's easier to have somebody else help me," Tunby said.
In Fallon County, where Census responses are below 30%, librarian Stacy Moore is a "be counted" volunteer and she's got her work cut out for her. Moore was Tunby's Census mentor.
"This normally only takes 10 minutes," she laughed.