2020 Census Boomtown

Pump jacks stand with apartments in the background Aug. 26, 2021, on the outskirts of Watford City, N.D., part of McKenzie County, the fastest-growing county in the U.S. That's according to new figures from the Census Bureau. ​

NORTH DAKOTA

Oil boom remakes county with fastest growth in US

WATFORD CITY — Lured by steady wages as the nation climbed out of the Great Recession, roughnecks and other oil field workers filled McKenzie County's few motel rooms, then began sleeping in cars, tents, trailers — anything to hide from the cold wind cutting across the North Dakota prairie. Once empty dirt roads suddenly were clogged with tanker trucks. Crime rates spiked.

Soon everything shifted yet again: The workers' spouses and children arrived. Classrooms swelled. Apartment buildings cropped up beside oil rigs.

The growth made McKenzie the nation's fastest-growing county during the past decade, according to the Census Bureau. It brought youth, diversity and better wages — breathing new life into somnolent towns that had been losing population since the 1930s.

Since the boom began in 2010, jobs in McKenzie County have come and gone with oil's changing fortunes. Crude prices peaked last decade at more than $130 a barrel, fell below $40, then rebounded before falling again when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

McKenzie just kept growing.

From 2010 to 2014, the amount of crude produced in the county grew 1,800%. By the end of the decade, census figures show, its population more than doubled, to 14,704 residents.

Pump jacks pulling oil from the ground dot the landscape across the county's 2,860 square miles. Bordered by the Yellowstone River to the north, Lake Sakakawea to the east and Montana to the west, McKenzie is larger in land mass than Delaware.

With a median age of 30 compared to 39 in 2010. The county has a median household income increasing 61% to almost $78,000, according to census data.

Farmhand Charlie Lewis said he came for the work and stayed for the community.

"The only time I think of going back is when it's 40 below,” he added.

NEW MEXICO

State deploys absentee ballot drop boxes

SANTA FE — Election officials are deploying ballot drop boxes across New Mexico for people who chose to cast absentee ballots without walking indoors during the upcoming Nov. 2 local election for public offices including mayor of Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver told a legislative panel on Sept. 13 that county clerks are required to provide one drop box for every 25,000 voters and at least two per county. Exceptions can be made at the request of local county officials.

The quick-drop boxes for voting are among a long list measures backed by Toulouse Oliver, a second-term Democrat, that are aimed at making voting more accessible. Lawmakers appropriated funding for the initiative amid concerns about COVID-19 and indoor crowding at polling places.

Ballots must be collected at least once a day from the boxes, video surveillance of drop boxes is required and recordings must be retained by county clerks. It remains illegal for any person to deliver a ballot for another person with the exception of immediate family, and signs at each drop box are required to explain that prohibition against so-called ballot harvesting.

The proliferation of drop boxes is the outcome of 2019 legislation from the Democratic-led legislature that was signed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, and more detailed rules this summer from state election regulators aimed at consistent procedures.

Drop boxes were a focus of Republican Party concerns about election security in the 2020 general election. Disputes about ballot drop boxes in two counties were resolved in state district court in October 2020 prior to the close of voting.

UTAH

Judge tosses lawsuit over Mormon church use of donations

SALT LAKE CITY — A judge tossed out a lawsuit filed by James Huntsman, a member of one of Utah's most prominent families and brother of a former governor, against The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in a ruling issued Sept. 13.

Huntsman had accused the Utah-based faith known widely as the Mormon church of fraud and sought to recover millions of dollars in contributions, saying the church spent donations solicited for charity on commercial purposes. Judge Stephen Wilson rejected Huntsman's claims and said that no reasonable juror would believe that Latter-day Saint leaders made false statements about how tithing funds would be used.

In a lawsuit filed in March, Huntsman said he was defrauded out of millions during the 24 years he gave 10% of his annual income to the church. He is the brother of former U.S. diplomat and ex-Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and son of late billionaire philanthropist Jon Huntsman Sr.

He alleged that the church has "repeatedly and publicly lied" about the use of billions of dollars in contributions meant to pay for missionary work, temples and other educational and charitable work.

Church spokesperson Eric Hawkins said the church is "grateful" the judge granted its motion for summary judgment in a statement Tuesday.

Huntsman's attorney David Jonelis said they intend to appeal the ruling

NEBRASKA

Anti-abortion students sue Creighton over vaccine mandate

OMAHA — Four students are suing Creighton University over its requirement to get vaccinated against COVID-19 to remain enrolled, arguing that some of them "feel coerced" to violate their religious beliefs against abortion.

The lawsuit filed the week of Sept. 6 in Douglas County District Court also alleges that some of the four students have medical conditions that make vaccines not recommended for them.

The university in Omaha is affiliated with the Jesuit order of the Catholic Church. It mandated that all students get vaccinated in August, after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted full approval to a vaccine mandated by Pfizer, according to local news reports. The university had previously allowed medical exemptions to its vaccine requirements, but not religious ones.

The lawsuit says all four students have "religious objections" to COVID-19 vaccines because "the vaccines were developed and/or tested using abortion derived fetal cell lines."

The Vatican declared in December that it is "morally acceptable" for Roman Catholics to receive COVID-19 vaccines based on research that used cells derived from aborted fetuses, when "ethically irreproachable" vaccines aren't available.

The university declined comment.

IDAHO

Arrest warrant issued for ex-lawmaker on rape charges

BOISE — An arrest warrant has been issued for a former Idaho lawmaker who resigned in disgrace after a 19-year-old intern reported that he brought her to his apartment on false pretenses and raped her.

The Ada County arrest warrant on charges of rape and sexual penetration with a foreign object comes nearly five months after Aaron von Ehlinger, a Republican from Lewiston, resigned from the Idaho House of Representatives after an ethics committee found he should be formally censured for his behavior.

The investigation into von Ehlinger began in March after the young staffer reported he raped her after the two had dinner at a Boise restaurant. Von Ehlinger has denied all wrongdoing and maintains he had consensual sexual contact with the young woman.

A legislative ethics committee unanimously found that he engaged in "behavior unbecoming," and said they would support a vote to remove him from the statehouse.

The woman informed Legislative leadership and the police about the rape allegations on her first day at work after the incident. She also testified before the legislative ethics committee, despite facing harassment from von Ehlinger's supporters and some fellow lawmakers.

Attempts to contact von Ehlinger for comment were not immediately successful.

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