The official count of North Dakota’s population is expected to be released next spring after census efforts wrapped up this fall.
The 2010 census put the state’s population at 672,591, a figure used to determine how much federal money has flowed to the state and local communities over the past decade for everything from Medicaid to highway construction.
State officials expect North Dakota’s population has grown considerably since then despite some out-migration this year amid the oil downturn. The latest census estimate, which is not an official count, put it at 762,000 in 2019.
The U.S. Census Bureau is working through the data collected this year and is poised to send the official count to President Donald Trump by the end of 2020. The count is supposed to be released to states by April 1, 2021, at which point the data would become public.
It’s possible those dates could change pending the outcome of litigation concerning the census, said Kevin Iverson, manager of the North Dakota Census Office. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on the Trump administration’s effort to leave immigrants living in the country illegally out of the count that’s used to draw new congressional districts.
The census bureau says 65.2% of North Dakota households this year self-reported their census data, which could be done online or by mail or phone. That is down slightly from the 2010 census, in which 68.8% of households responded, and it’s below the 2020 national average at 67%.
“We probably did OK,” said Iverson, who had hoped to see the percentage up slightly higher.
He’s puzzled by an east-west divide in the state: Western counties tended to have a far lower response rate than those in the Red River Valley. In McKenzie County, for example, 34.5% of households responded. Cass County, home to Fargo, had a rate of 71.2%.
Iverson has a hunch that more people out west hold an attitude of independence, not wanting government in their lives. Regardless, their communities receive federal money for a host of reasons, so their participation in the census matters, he said.
“It’s a difficult message to sell,” he said.
The Bismarck-Mandan region responded at higher rates than anywhere else in the state. Burleigh County households participated at a rate of 78.3%, and Morton County at 72.6%.
The state made a significant push to get people to self-respond because the data families report on their households tends to be the most accurate and complete, Iverson said. Just because an area has a low self-response rate doesn't necessarily mean the official count will be low.
The census bureau tried to account for households that didn’t respond, primarily by sending workers to knock on their doors. The bureau reports that it completed 99.9% of that work in North Dakota by mid-October, when the count officially stopped.
When people didn’t answer at their doors, workers would knock on their neighbors’ as a last resort. The census bureau also used administrative records such as food stamp lists to augment the count, Iverson said.
North Dakota stepped up its efforts to promote the 2020 census to aid those of the federal census bureau, which is the entity tasked with administering the count. The state reviewed the bureau’s master address file, for example, adding 205 single-family houses that the federal government had missed.
The state worked with a $1 million legislative appropriation that funded advertising and local communities’ census messaging efforts, as well as a full-time administrative assistant. A statewide task force convened to coordinate efforts.
“The feeling is that they probably got just about everybody counted, but we never really will know,” Iverson said.
Rural counties, the oil patch and Indian reservations tended to have the lowest self-response rates. State census promoters anticipated those would be the hardest places to count and targeted messaging there.
Still, task force co-chair Linda Svihovec said she believes the state should make even greater efforts to promote the census in those areas for the next count in 2030.
The coronavirus pandemic posed a significant challenge to census efforts this year, she said. Many communities that had convened local “complete count committees” to encourage census participation had planned summer events where people could fill out the census on tablets, but most of those efforts were scrapped so as not to spread the virus.
“The same people that were heading local complete count committees when the pandemic hit and lockdowns started in small communities were also on the front lines of organizing pandemic efforts, so their attention was really diverted,” Svihovec said. “In more urban communities, I feel like the people devoted to the census could just stay on the census.”
The timing of the census also coincided with the downturn in the oil industry brought on by the pandemic and an oil price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia. Many Bakken workers lost jobs after the price of oil tanked this past March. The census count is based on the population of April 1, 2020, and households were supposed to answer the census with the number of people living there on that date, even if it later changed.
Census workers were originally slated to begin knocking on the doors of households that had not self-responded in late spring, but that was delayed until August due to the pandemic.
“I absolutely do believe they got to everybody they were aware was living in those communities at the time,” Svihovec said of the oil patch. “My concern is that so many people had left by the time the U.S. Census Bureau reactivated their operations that I just don't know how many people were probably just never counted.”
Svihovec lived in Watford City through the oil boom until 2017, so she’s particularly eager to see the official population count for oil-producing counties once it’s released.
“I saw the number of people that were trying to be served,” she said. “I saw the growth in infrastructure, in restaurants, in hotels to accommodate that.”
Iverson said he’s curious to see what surprises the count entails. For example, the 2010 census showed an official population for Fargo with 5,000 residents more than the previous year’s estimate.
“I think we’re going to find some interesting tidbits in all of this,” he said.
Reach Amy R. Sisk at 701-250-8252 or firstname.lastname@example.org.