The migration of people moving from rural areas of Nebraska to more urban areas continued over the past 10 years, according to data released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau. The population shift will require redistricting and could cost western Nebraska a couple seats in the state Legislature.
From the data, the state’s three largest counties – Douglas, Lancaster and Sarpy – saw a population increase over 136,000 people within the census timeframe. That’s more than the 135,163 people who relocated to Nebraska during that same period.
Analysis by the University of Nebraska – Omaha showed that after the 2000 Census, those three counties represented 48.9% of the state’s population and had control of 24 districts. Ten years later, those three counties had 52.6% of the state’s population and comprised 52.6% of districts with control of 25 districts and three partial districts.
David Drozd, research coordinator at the Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, took Nebraska’s 2020 population of 1,961,504 people to extrapolate the three districts’ representations. He determined the average congressional district size will be 653,835 people.
- First district: 659,816 (5,981 above average)
- Second district: 701,005 (47,170 above average)
- Third district: 600,683 (53,152 below average)
“We have similar patterns the last two decades with the more urban areas growing a bit quicker,” he said. “All three districts started out the decade with about the same population, but now you can see there’s an over 100,000 difference between the largest district, number two, (Omaha-area) and the rural-based third district.”
For the 49 Unicameral Districts, Drozd calculated the average population size would be 40,031 people. District 39 (Elkhorn) is the most populated with 59,542 people and the District 47 (Panhandle) is the least populated with 33,841 people. During the redistricting process, the new districts cannot vary by greater than 10%, putting the range of 38,029 to 42,033 people.
Senator John Stinner, who represents District 48, said that while the Census affects redistricting every 10 years, this year is important because of the loss of population in rural Nebraska. He hopes people recognize the large geographic region a couple senators represent in western Nebraska during the redistricting process.
“The obvious becomes under our formula of plus or minus 10,000, we’re going to lose at least two to three seats in rural Nebraska,” he said. “I don’t know what that configuration will look like yet or we may be able to hold on to a seat just by the way we put the lines together.”
Despite the potential loss of representation, Stinner believes Scotts Bluff County is in decent shape, although surrounding counties may have to be added to the district to reach the population threshold. However, Stinner has not received all of the information for his personal review and will not for a couple of weeks.
Despite being classified within the 10 largest counties, Scotts Bluff, along with Lincoln, were the only two counties that experienced a population decline from 2010 to 2020. Only 25% of the state’s 93 counties reported population increases, which parallels findings from the 2000-2010 Census, although the counties likely differed.
Scotts Bluff County was one of the bottom unicameral district populations, recording a population of 36,084 residents, down 2.4% from 2010.
Here are the population changes for the other Panhandle counties:
- Banner: 674, down 2.3%
- Box Butte: 10,842, down 4.1%
- Cheyenne: 9,468, down 5.3%
- Dawes: 8,199, down 10.7%
- Deuel: 1,838, down 5.3%
- Garden: 1,874, down 8.9%
- Kimball: 3,434, down 10.1%
- Morrill: 4,555, down 9.7%
- Sheridan: 5,127, down 6.3%
- Sioux: 1,135, down 13.4%
A challenge for the rural senators has been representing the people of various counties, Stinner said.
“To properly represent some of these districts that have five, six, seven or eight counties in them is very difficult,” he said. “I’m hoping we get some flexibility.”
Stinner added he hopes the six rural senators are able to hold onto their seats, so those Nebraskans have the same representation.
As lawmakers begin the process of redistricting, Congressman Adrian Smith said it will not affect how he represents Nebraskans.
“Agriculture is our state’s largest industry, and I’m privileged to be able to represent the hardworking Nebraskans who make the Third District number one nationally in food production,” Smith said. “Regardless of the outcome of redistricting, my approach to representing Nebraska’s 3rd District remains strong. I look forward to continuing my work ensuring Nebraska leads the way in feeding America and the world.”
By and large, most of the growing counties were in eastern Nebraska. That continuation of population diversion between eastern and western Nebraska will be used to redraw the state’s political boundaries, such as legislative and congressional districts. Currently, the legislative review office has the data and will crunch the numbers for roughly two weeks before it is disseminated to the committee in early September. Lawmakers will begin this process next month in a special session.
The new districts will be sent to other political instrumentalities in October for them to redraw their lines ahead of the election.
“Our backs are against the wall,” Stinner said. “We have to have something out by October 1, so the locals can redraw their lines and whatever political instrumentalities are affected they need to have that information to get out to the public, so people know where they’re voting and who they’re voting for.”
Sarpy, Lancaster and Douglas counties comprise 56% of Nebraska’s population, meaning they are entitled to 27 of the 49 seats in the state Legislature. That’s an additional two seats.
To balance the representation, the urban population influx will mean roughly 50,000 people will have to be moved into the rural 3rd Congressional District and nearly the same amount will be moved out of the Omaha-based 2nd District.