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Senate rebuffs changes to redistricting

BISMARCK (AP) -- North Dakota senators decided they should keep the power to draw their own districts, rejecting two proposed constitutional amendments that would have given the task to independent commissions.

If legislators keep control of redistricting, voters can punish their local lawmakers if they do a poor job of drawing a new set of boundaries, said Sen. Terry Wanzek, R-Jamestown.

Lawmakers are "reflective of the people's wishes," Wanzek said. "The legislative body is elected and accountable to the voters."

Every 10 years, the Legislature uses new federal census data to draw new legislative districts. The Legislature now has 47 districts, each represented by a senator and two House members, all of whom are elected at large.

Each district is supposed to include approximately the same number of people, although small variances are allowed. The principle is called, "one person, one vote," and is intended to give each district similar voting power in the Legislature.

On Thursday, the Senate voted down two constitutional amendments aimed at overhauling the redistricting process. Each sought to establish a commission, apart from the Legislature, that would be in charge of drawing the districts lawmakers would represent. Both amendments barred the Legislature from changing the commissions' final plans.

An amendment sponsored by Sen. Larry Robinson, D-Valley City, suggested an eight-member commission, with its members picked by judges and North Dakota's chief justice. The presiding judge of each of North Dakota's seven judicial districts would each choose one member, with the chief justice picking the eighth. It lost, 24-20.

Sen. John Warner, D-Ryder, offered a proposal for a nine-member commission, with eight of its members chosen by Republican and Democratic legislative leaders. The chairman of the University of North Dakota's geography department was left to pick the ninth. It was defeated, 26-19.

Robinson said North Dakota's last redistricting plan, approved in 2001, alienated North Dakotans and left a number of misshapen districts.

"There has been frustration, distrust, bitterness and downright confusion over the process," Robinson said. "I think it's incumbent upon us to do everything we can to build trust and confidence in the electorate."

Warner said his own district, which includes the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation and parts of six counties, was an example of a district where "one party cannot win and the other cannot lose." Warner was unopposed for re-election last year after winning his first Senate term with 58 percent of the vote.

"I couldn't even find someone to run against me last election. Believe me, I tried," Warner said. "I called every Republican I thought I could beat, and I couldn't talk any of them into running."

When legislators draw their own districts, they try to ensure safe seats for themselves, which does not make for the best policymaking when they debate legislation, Warner said.

"We polarize the political conversation ... The only views that matter are those at the extremes of the political spectrum," Warner said. "If (the proposed amendment) is not perfect, this is a better system than we have going forward."

The North Dakota House also has a redistricting amendment, which is awaiting a vote. Sponsored by Rep. Corey Mock, D-Grand Forks, it is similar to Robinson's amendment, except that seven district judges are commission members themselves, rather than people appointed by them. Mock's amendment says the chairman of UND's geography department should choose the panel's chairman.