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Montana has a lot riding on an accurate 2020 Census count. The decennial count of everyone living in the United States will be used to allocate billions of dollars in federal spending over the next 10 years.

Census results will be used to allocate representation in the U.S. House. Montana has just one U.S. representative now, but multiple projections of 2020 results indicate that the state could gain a second seat — if everybody in Montana gets counted.

That's why the Montana Census 2020 staff at the state Department of Commerce are concerned about mailings sent last month that were marked: “2019 Congressional District Census" and contained forms made to look like a government census survey. The mailings also included in smaller type, "commissioned by the Republican Party.”

In a letter sent to the RNC in Washington, D.C., Gov. Steve Bullock says calls on the committee to cease sending mailings marked "census." Bullock, a Democrat, noted that the mailings were marked "official document" and requested a minimum of $15 processing fee. (There is no fee for participating in the actual U.S. Census.)

"We are gravely concerned that when the actual Census questionnaires are distributed, Montanans who had received RNC mailers may be under the impression that they have already responded to the Census, disregard the real Census survey, and lead to an undercount in Montana,” Bullock wrote in the letter dated Oct. 17. “An undercount has real, economic consequences for the lives of Montanans and should not be sacrificed for private fundraising.”

We agree that the mailing could be confusing for recipients. It is irresponsible to risk confusing Americans with a "census" that isn't the real McCoy. No organization should subvert interest in the census to raise campaign funds as the recent mailings received in Gallatin County did.

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This incident is a repeat of a "census" mailing the GOP sent to some Montanans in May and similar to a mailing sent before the 2010 Census. This practice has to stop.

The U.S. House and Senate unanimously passed the Prevent Deceptive Census Look Alike Mailings Act in 2010 when similar imitation census mailings were circulated. That law obviously hasn't prevented the practice.

According to a congressional summary, that law: "Declares matter that bears the term "census" on its envelope, outside cover, or wrapper, but that constitutes a solicitation by a nongovernmental entity, to be nonmailable by the United States Postal Service, unless: (1) it satisfies one of the exceptions specified for otherwise nonmailable matter under existing law (such as displaying an appropriate disclaimer); and (2) its envelope, outside cover, or wrapper bears on its face an accurate return address including the name of the entity that sent it."

The confusion generated by the imitation census mailing is an opportunity to remind all Montanans to be careful, critical readers, viewers and listeners. The mailing in question does say it comes from the GOP, and some of the questions it asks are clearly partisan. Most Montanans who carefully read the whole thing would see that it is a solicitation for cash political contributions.

Americans are bombarded constantly with messages from social media, mass media and the U.S. mail. Much of this deluge is designed to influence the recipient to act or not act in a certain way. Don't be fooled, look and listen carefully. Political messages are supposed to say who is paying for them. Always consider the source.

When you get mail that says "census" read it carefully, and be sure to respond online or by phone next April as directed by the U.S. Census Bureau. Your census response will help Montana get the full funding and congressional representation its residents deserve.

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Opinion Editor

Opinion editor for The Billings Gazette.