As the urban-rural population divide continues to grow in Nebraska, an accurate count in this year’s U.S. census becomes even more important.

“The upcoming census is going to be critical for us to hang on to what we have today,” State Senator John Stinner said. Stinner of Gering represents District 48, entirely within the borders of Scotts Bluff County. “If you divide the state in half, you have six senators representing the western half of the state. With population shifting to the east, we could lose two to three senators. For half the state to not have a voice is an awful idea.”

The census, required by the U.S. Constitution, has been conducted every 10 years since 1790. Its initial primary function was to determine how many seats each state would be allotted in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Closer to home, population determines representation in the Nebraska Legislature. In rural western Nebraska, it results in larger districts that senators must cover to meet with constituents.

One of them is Tom Brewer of Gordon. His District 43 covers 13 counties across 300 miles. It runs along the Nebraska-South Dakota border from Crawford east to Long Pine in Brown County and south to Stapleton in Logan County.

Brewer said his district is projecting an estimated population loss of 6,700. In that case, he might have to pick up an additional two counties to meet the state population requirement for a district.

District 47 State Senator Steve Erdman of Bayard also has a large district. It covers 10 counties in western Nebraska, from Sioux in the north to Kimball in the south and east to Keith County. With 35,000 residents, it’s the least populated district in the state.

Erdman defined rural Nebraska as the 90 counties outside of Douglas and Sarpy (metro Omaha) and Lancaster (Lincoln).

“Those 90 rural counties have lost an estimated 90,000 people over the last 10 years,” he said. Douglas, Sarpy and Lancaster have gained 80,000 over that time.”

He added that when the population shift is divided by the number of senators, rural Nebraska could lose two senators while Douglas, Sarpy and Lancaster could gain two.

While it hasn’t been determined from where those two districts would come, Erdman said they would probably be from rural Nebraska.

A possible solution introduced in the Legislature this session would increase the number senators from 49 to 55, decreasing the size of large districts. However, that bill has stalled in committee.

“Personally, I’m for smaller government,” Erdman said. “It’s easier to get a consensus with a smaller group of people. I’m all for cooperation, but I’m not interested if the urban senators only want to pass legislation that’s good for them but not for us.”

He added that even if the bill to expand the number of state senators passes, 70% of the state’s population would still be in the three largest counties, whether the population is divided by 49 or 55 senators.

Stinner said the size and diversity of rural districts makes it difficult to represent everyone’s interests. Although video conferences can help, it’s not face-to-face contact with the voters. Less contact means less effectiveness in representing the district constituents.

The upcoming 2020 census will be the first time when respondents are encouraged to fill out the form online. They will still have the option to respond by mail or by phone.

The Census Bureau announced that while the 2020 census is already underway, most people will be contacted the first time starting in early March. A reminder letter will also be sent to households between March 16-24.

About 95% of households will receive their census invitation by mail and some may receive the questionnaire. About 5% will receive their invitation when a census taker drops off the questionnaire at their place of residence. Less than 1% will be counted in person by a census taker.

For those who haven’t responded, a reminder postcard will be sent between March 26 and April 3. Between April 8-16, a reminder letter will be sent along with a paper questionnaire. A final postcard will be sent between April 20-27 before census workers follow up in person.

The 2020 census will include every person living in the U.S., regardless of citizenship or immigration status. International visitors on vacation or work trips to the U.S. during the census are not counted.

Most of the questions on the 2020 questionnaire will be similar to previous census forms and included the number of people living or staying in a home on April 1, 2020. Whether the home is owned with or without a mortgage, rented or occupied without rent will also be asked.

A phone number for the person in the home will be asked, along with the name, sex, age, date of birth and race of each person.

Respondents will be asked whether each person is of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin, and the relationship of each person to a central person in the home.

Getting an accurate count of all persons living in the state will be vital to Nebraska’s future. Nebraska is a state where more than 90 percent of the land area is used for agriculture production. However, a large majority of its residents live in just three of the most urbanized counties in the Omaha and Lincoln metro areas.

Such a wide diversity of needs must be addressed by both the state and federal governments, so getting an accurate census count is important.

A bill currently under consideration in the Nebraska Lesiglature could have an impact on how the census is conducted. If passed, the bill would require that for the purpose of drawing boundaries for legislative and congressional districts, individuals confined to one of the state’s seven correctional facilities be counted as residents of the county, city or village where they lived prior to incarceration.

State Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha, who introduced the bill, said counting imates as residents of their home communities will help assure the state has a more accurate count during the upcoming census. A majority of those inmates return home after release, so federal and state funding should go to the communities that provide essential re-entry services when they return home.

One recent study estimates that for each resident that’s missed in the census, Nebraska could miss out on $21,000 in federal funding over the next decade. About 300 federal assistance programs use population figures to determine where more than $8 billion in aid to the states will be distributed each year.

An accurate population count is important for determining our representation in Congress, including the number of votes Nebraska receives in the Electoral College during presidential election years.

At one time, Nebraska had five Congressional districts. Today, that number is down to three — and occasional rumors continue to warn we could possibly lose one more. But current projections have the state holding all three of its districts in 2020.

It’s unavoidable that interests of rural and urban Nebraska will clash on occasion.

“We try to work together, but we also have to represent our constituencies,” Stinner said. “As diverse as we are, there are different problems in different parts of the state.”

The state’s first unicameral session in 1937 included 43 senators, each representing about 27,000 constituents in their districts.

Current population estimates show that by 2021, about 40,000 people will be represented in each of the state’s 49 districts.

jpurvis@starherald.com

We're always interested in hearing about news in our community. Let us know what's going on!

Jerry Purvis is a reporter with the Star-Herald. He can be reached at 308-632-9046 or emailed at jpurvis@starherald.com.

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