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The biggest prize for completing the 2020 U.S. Census is more power in Congress, and Montana may finally be a winner after three decades of disappointment.

That outcome depends, however, on whether the state’s residents willingly answer 10 questions on the forms they’ll get from the Census Bureau a year from now. And nationally, census watchers worry this decennial effort may pose the toughest challenge since the first national count in 1790.

This year, the Trump administration’s intention of adding a citizenship question has rattled the Census Bureau. Two federal judges have rejected the plan, and the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in April.

The Census is hoping the court will release its decision before ending its term in June and has already prepared two separate versions of the 2020 questionnaire. But whichever way the high court rules, the bureau expects trouble.

“The farther they slip on the timeline, the harder it is to get all the operations up and running,” said Mary Craigle, who heads Montana’s census activity at the state Department of Commerce. “Nationally, the citizenship issue is larger where there are large immigrant communities, like California, Florida and Texas. We (in Montana) don’t have large numbers of immigrants, but it’s still a concern. We don’t want any kind of issues out there making people hesitate in filling out their forms.”

The United States had 3.9 million people in the first census of 1790. It was the first nation in the world to tie its census to its political power structure by apportioning congressional seats to population. The 2020 count could top 330 million.

Today, the average congressional district outnumbers the population of any of the original 13 states. That’s especially true of Montana, which has the most people represented by a single congressional seat in the nation. It used to have two seats, but lost one in 1980.

Congress stopped increasing the size of the House of Representatives in 1920, capping it at 435 seats. That was the year the nation tipped from a majority rural to majority urban society. But the rural states refused to surrender their influence by expanding the House in favor of those large city populations.

Since then, a differential equation looks at how much fast-growing states have grown in comparison to how much shrinking states have lost to reallocate representation.

“It’s not how many people you have,” said Wall Street Journal data reporter Paul Overberg. “It’s how many people you have relative to other states.”

So even though California has added about 2.2 million people (equal to two Montanas) between 2010 and 2017, it’s likely to lose one of its 53 House seats after the 2020 census.

In 2010, Utah and North Carolina disputed the award of the final seat, in a legal fight that came down to a few hundred people out of a combined 12.3 million (Utah won the seat).

Nationwide, the trend in rural areas has been losses in manufacturing and farming counties and gains in places people like for recreation or retirement. Montana has an intense mix of both, with places such as Park and Flathead counties booming while Phillips and Fallon counties bleed people.

Montana has narrowly missed an upgrade in each of the past two censuses. Whenever a growing state gets an additional seat, it drops to the bottom of the priority list even if its expansion outstrips other states. So although Montana hasn’t grown much in the past 20 years, it might be enough to outrank other states that won in 2010.

That’s where the state and national outreach campaigns matter. The federal census plans to spend about $550 million encouraging residents to participate.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock’s 2019 budget includes a request for $100,000 to spend on state census outreach this session. That works out to about 9 cents per Montanan, the same amount we spent for the 2010 census. By comparison, California plans to invest about $3 per person, and it’s likely to lose a congressional seat.

“We really learned from the 2010 count,” Craigle said. “Last time, I started work at the department in April 2009, and we didn’t start on the census until September 2009. This time, we started in March 2018. We’re way ahead. I feel really good about it.”

California has already allocated about $100 million in state spending on census outreach, and California Complete Count Director Ditas Katague said she’s expecting to have another $54 million added to that account this year. That compares to no spending in 1990, followed by $24 million in 2000. That investment produced a 5 percent increase in turnout. But the 2010 cycle fell right after the Great Recession, and no state legislatures wanted to spend on anything. California only provided $2 million for that census, and saw its turnout underperform 2000 levels.

States make those investments because the census pays off in ways besides representation in Washington, D.C. In Montana, each resident draws approximately $2,000 a year in federal spending, on population-sensitive services like interstate highway improvements, school lunch supplies, hospital maintenance and law enforcement support. Many federal programs such as public transportation or housing can only go to communities that have reached threshold populations, such as when Missoula became a Metropolitan Statistical Area after gaining more than 50,000 people in 1998. Bozeman hovers on the threshold of MSA status this go-around.

In the past, about two-thirds of the country turned in their questionnaires without reminders. That level has dropped to about 60 percent, in keeping with a general trend against answering surveys of all kinds (phone polls, marketing studies, etc.)

“Response rates are down for all kinds of surveys,” Overberg said. “There’s a lot of noise out there.”

That’s where the nation’s largest non-military mobilization for a single purpose comes in. For the 2010 count, the Census Bureau hired about 600,000 people for the door-to-door canvassing. This time, it anticipates needing about 400,000 employees. Those jobs will pay between $17 and $21 an hour for the few months they last.

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Montana and many other parts of the country could have trouble filling them. On Friday, Bullock announced the state’s unemployment rate was 3.8 percent for the second month in a row. Tight labor markets nationwide appeared to affect employment gains and hiring speed.

The Census Bureau intends to make do with the smaller staff in part because it has automated many of its clerical and record-keeping functions. And this cycle, it intends to get a huge share of its responses via people’s home computers or cell phones.

“For the first time, people can respond to the census any time, anywhere, on the internet,” said Kaile Bower of the census’ Communications and Coordination Directorate. That includes inviting people at public gatherings like sports games, church services or pow wows to pull out their phones and fill out their forms.

However, census officials anticipate at least 20 percent of the populace won’t feel comfortable filing their forms through the web. In addition, big swaths of the country lack good broadband coverage. And beyond that, even powerful cell towers won’t help if a person can’t afford an internet service subscription or cellphone data plan.

The bureau plans special efforts to reach people in places like Indian reservations, low-income neighborhoods or isolated rural areas, including going house to house with special iPhones that a head of household can use to enter the answers. As a last resort, the bureau will try mailing out paper census questionnaires and then send people to collect them if necessary.

Then there’s the credibility issue. Growing numbers of people don’t trust the government, or fear their privacy will be violated, or aren’t willing to give accurate answers on their census forms. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee census history expert Margo Anderson said many questions show patterns of “socially acceptable answers” that change over the decades. For example, people born around the turn of the 20th Century reported progressively higher levels of education over time, as the national trend of going to college increased.

“By the 1950s, there were many more college graduates (in the age cohort) than were reported in the 1920s and ‘30s,” Anderson said. “Did they all get their bachelor’s degrees at the age of 52? As people live their lives, they change the way they define themselves.”

That has a more critical impact with the citizenship question. If significant numbers of resident non-citizens answer “yes” to the citizenship question or don’t answer at all, other government records like voter registrations and Medicaid services may reveal a discrepancy. Census Bureau staff then have several options, all controversial. They may accept the likely incorrect number, use statistical analysis to impute a more correct number, or repeatedly send canvassers door-to-door to acquire more complete responses.

Current estimates project the 2020 Census could be off by 5 percent in high-immigrant communities if the citizenship question gets included. Even if it gets left off, the controversy may have already discouraged between 1 and 3 percent of those populations from answering completely. That could be enough to violate the constitutional requirement for full enumeration.

The Census Bureau double checks its responses by comparing data from other government agencies. For instance, the IRS tracks taxpayers' movements from old to new addresses. Birth certificates record native-born additions. Immigration and visa applications quantify the numbers of non-citizen residents. The annual American Community Survey uses sampling methods rather than the count-everybody decennial census, but also gives a highly accurate picture of local populations.

“The system we’ve patched together to hold the traditional census is growing increasingly tenuous,” Overberg said. “If we meet enough refusal, denial and resistance, it could be a big enough shock to the system to force the transition to more administrative records like Europe does.”

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