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OTHER VOICES: Undercount on census would hurt Nebraska

May 11, 2019

If only the politics surrounding the upcoming 2020 census were as cut and dried as Article I of the U.S. Constitution, which mandates an “actual enumeration” of Americans every 10 years.

Congressional representation is certainly one of the most important outcomes stemming from this decennial tally, which will occur next year. But other vital procedures – including the awarding of federal funds and the drawing of other political districts – directly result.

This critical count is far too significant for political stunts – especially at the federal level – to undermine.

The University of Nebraska at Omaha estimates just one missed resident will cost the state nearly $2,100 in federal funds per year – or almost $21,000 over the course of the decade.

Lincoln Sen. Matt Hansen introduced a bill (LB436) that would join every state other than South Dakota in creating a citizens committee to ensure an accurate census. Gov. Pete Ricketts has opposed the measure, which comes with an estimated $111,000 price tag.

The Lincoln Journal Star editorial board debated this bill extensively earlier this year without coming to a consensus. Regardless, the utmost precision is needed.

Some members felt Hansen’s bill was about as common sense as it got, given that it’d pay for itself if just six more Nebraskans filled out the census. Others, however, feared a sunk cost, as residents who wanted to avoid being counted would find ways to dodge the form – largely because of the Trump administration’s insistence on reinstating a citizenship question that was scrapped in 1960.

Undocumented immigrants have expressed worry that a response to that query could alert authorities to their status in the country and lead to deportation. But federal law prevents for 72 years the release of any personally identifiable information from the census – which would be 2092. The question’s fate will ultimately be determined by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Still, the Census Bureau has estimated as many as 6.5 million people – the population reported by Massachusetts, then the 15th-most-populous state, in 2010 – may elect to not participate.

If Nebraska’s population is underreported, it could cost the state greatly.

In terms of representation, Nebraska’s sprawling 3rd District is expected to remain above the threshold that would cost the state a seat in the U.S. House. However, if a large number of Nebraskans fail to fill out the 2020 Census, that seat could theoretically be lost – and diminish the state’s clout in Washington.

And federal funding – which helps defray the cost of highways and health care, among other programs in the state – represents nearly 27% of Nebraska’s budget. If fewer Nebraskans complete the census, the direct effect will be fewer federal dollars.

Nebraska benefits from having the most accurate count of the “whole number of persons,” as later set forth in the 14th Amendment. State and federal policies must reflect this fact.