After population growth 'onslaught,' ND lieutenant governor optimistic for 2020 census

Linda Svihovec, front, is the co-chair of the North Dakota Complete Count Task Force for the 2020 U.S. Census in North Dakota. In back from left are Kevin Iverson of the North Dakota Department of Commerce, Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford, Dennis Johnson of the Deputy Regional Director of the Census, Scott Davis, director of North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission.

BISMARCK — North Dakota’s lieutenant governor expressed confidence Tuesday, May 7, that the upcoming census will produce a more accurate result after the last headcount struggled with a deluge of oil workers and other residents.

Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford, a city councilman and mayor of Watford City during a period of rapid growth in the western region of the state, estimated that tens of thousands of residents were missed during the most recent census in 2010.

“We were not ready for that onslaught of population growth that came with the economic boom 10 years ago,” he said during an event marking the public kickoff to the state’s census efforts. “This just feels a lot more prepared.”

Gov. Doug Burgum signed an executive order creating the “Complete Count Task Force,” which will recommend ways to “safeguard and promote the 2020 census to ensure a fair and accurate count,” according to a news release. The move came on the heels of the state Legislature’s decision to budget $1 million to promote census efforts.

Serving as the task force’s co-chairpersons will be Linda Svihovec, a research analyst for the North Dakota Association of Counties, and Louise Dardis, a retired West Fargo School District administrator.

Svihovec, the former auditor/treasurer for McKenzie County, predicted an “easier endeavor” to count people in western North Dakota thanks in part to a smaller transient population. But Dardis raised concerns about overcoming language barriers while reaching a growing number of refugees.

Dennis Johnson, deputy regional director for the U.S. Census Bureau, said counting North Dakota residents is a “big challenge, especially with the changes that have taken place in the last 10, 15 years.”

Estimates suggest North Dakota’s population grew 13 percent between 2010 and 2018, from nearly 672,600 to 760,077, which marked a record. Only four states had higher estimated rates of growth in that time period, Burgum’s office previously said.

The census is a massive national undertaking that helps determine the distribution of political power and federal funds. More than 3,000 workers will be needed in the state during in the middle of next year, Burgum’s office said.

“What we do together over the next year will shape North Dakota not only next year, but for the next 10 years and beyond,” Johnson said.

But as state officials begin organizing, a federal dispute is creating some uncertainty.

The U.S. Supreme Court is considering whether to allow the Trump administration to question people’s citizenship status as part of the census, a move opponents say will deter immigrants from responding.

Sanford said he didn’t believe the Burgum administration had a position on the citizenship question, but he didn’t think it would have a major effect on North Dakota’s count. Burgum, a Republican, missed Tuesday’s event due to illness.

State officials warned that undercounting North Dakota’s population would be costly.

In fiscal year 2016, North Dakota received roughly $1.8 billion through 55 federal spending programs guided by census data, including Medicaid and highway funds, according to a study by George Washington University. Kevin Iverson, who manages the state’s census office, said each missed person could result in a $19,100 hit over 10 years.

“It has a huge financial impact to the state when people do not participate,” he said.

Iverson said information provided on the forms can only be used for census purposes. He expected the citizenship question to have a relatively minor impact in North Dakota, where less than 1% of the population was made up of “unauthorized” immigrants in 2016, according to figures the Pew Research Center published last year.

“The truth is, those people are driving on the roads, their kids are in schools, they’re flipping the light switches and everything else,” Iverson said. “They need to be counted in the census just as much.”

Iverson said people who spend a majority of their time in North Dakota should be counted as part of the state’s population, which he said is an important reminder for more mobile residents like college students, military members and oil workers. Rural residents and Native Americans tend to have lower participation rates, he said.

Census forms are expected to be sent to households starting in March, Iverson said.

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