The NCSL Blog

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By Drew Marvel

While other states are preparing for the 2020 census with congressional reapportionment gains in mind, North Dakota has a different goal: more Olive Gardens.

Olive Gardens - Wiki common mediaAt least, that’s how Kevin Iverson, North Dakota’s Census Office manager, put it when I spoke to him about his state’s newly formed Complete Count Task Force. Created by Governor Doug Burgum (R) in May 2019 via executive order and funded by a $1 million appropriation from the legislature, the task force’s primary goal of a complete and accurate state population count is primarily driven by an economic rationale.

North Dakota has historically been a negative net migration state (meaning it has had more people moving out than moving in), but that all changed upon discovery of large oil and natural gas deposits in the state’s vast western region in 2006. The economic boom driven by the new Bakken oil fields has brought with it an influx of population growth to North Dakota, growth that some state officials, like Iverson, believe was missed in the 2010 census to the state’s detriment.

An undercount in North Dakota will affect more than just bragging rights over population growth—it will have direct implications for the state’s economy and residents over the next decade. That was Iverson’s conclusion after reading “Counting for Dollars,” a report on the decennial census’s economic impact in each state published by George Washington University. According to that study, each missed person is estimated to cost North Dakota $1,910 in federal funding each year through 2030, meaning a statewide undercount of just .1% would total $15 million in losses over the next decade.

But Iverson also recognizes that these abstract values might not mean much to many North Dakota residents. As Iverson framed it, “residents might not care about how much this person might be worth individually, but if we tell them that ‘if we get enough people counted, then Olive Garden will look at coming to town,’ then that gets people to care. This isn’t one-dimensional.”   

North Dakota has identified seven “unique populations” that are more susceptible to being missed in the census: (1) Native Americans, (2) Bakken oil field residents, (3) retired “snowbirds” (who move south during colder weather), (4) military members, (5) college students, (6) recent immigrants to the U.S., and (7) very rural populations.

Iverson went on to detail North Dakota’s “three-pronged approach” to count these populations. First, they are hiring GIS professionals to cross-reference North Dakota’s local census address records with the federal census’ address records to improve accuracy. Second, the state is implementing a direct marketing campaign specifically targeting these populations with media aimed to educate and raise awareness in advance of census day.

Rounding out North Dakota’s census outreach is the governor’s Complete Count Task Force that aims to coordinate and implement the most effective counting strategies statewide, a task Iverson believes locals are best suited for.

Acknowledging the U.S. Census Bureau’s staffing efforts in North Dakota, Iverson explained that, in his experience, “something may look great on paper, but when you get on the ground it doesn’t work. You need local people to step up, so we took it on ourselves to make sure it’s done correctly.”

For more information on North Dakota or other states’ census operations, visit NCSL’s 2020 Census Resources and Legislation webpage.

If you have any questions relating to the decennial census, contact NCSL’s Elections & Redistricting team at elections-info@ncsl.org.

Drew Marvel is a student at William and Mary’s Law School, and a legal intern with NCSL’s Elections and Redistricting Program.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.