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Governor approves ND redistricting map; area lawmaker unhappy

The General Assembly recently passed a committee's redistricting plan, House Bill 1504, which Gov. Doug Burgum signed Thursday. However, not all elected officials are content with the redistricting plan. North Dakota's District 36 Rep. Mike Schatz, of New England, said he was unhappy with changes that he said suggests gerrymandering.

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General Assemblymen at the North Dakota State Capitol in Bismarck approved a redistricting map earlier this week. (Dickinson Press file photo)
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In a phone interview with The Press Thursday, Senate Majority Caucus Leader David Hogue, R-Minot, said the redistricting plan passed the Senate 43-4 and the sub-districts measure passed 26-21, both of which went to Gov. Doug Burgum's desk. Burgum did sign the redistricting plan but it remains unclear if he has yet, or if he will sign the measure approving two sub-districts.

The process of drawing electoral district boundaries in the United States routinely yields arguments that the process of drawing district boundaries is done in an effort to achieve political advantage for legislators. In states with little opposing party opposition, such as North Dakota, the contention often centers on internal conflicts within a single party that can and often do become a matter of contention as new lines are drawn.

The narrowly passed sub-districts measure has Former New England high school teacher and football coach, Rep. Mike Schatz, R-New England, unhappy with the redistricted map — which he said forces the tenured representative to run in an entirely new district to retain his seat. According to Schatz, the map is geographically absurd and he believes has been gerrymandered.

Schatz noted that the geographical layout has many oddly shaped limits compared to the previous iteration.

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This is the new district formation Dickinson and the surrounding area, which was recently approved by the House. (Jason O'Day / The Dickinson Press)

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(Jason O'Day / The Dickinson Press)

“I cannot for the life of me figure out why they would make this,” Schatz said. “They’re really pushing those of us who don’t like their map into a corner, and that’s frustrating for me.”

Schatz noted that he had expressed his frustration to the committee, but that the resources needed to allow for an amendment proposal to the map were not readily available until after the committee had concluded the redrawing process. According to Schatz, districts should have greater geographic proximity than the current map.

COMMITTEE SELECTION

Each of the 47 state congressional districts in North Dakota is represented by one senator and two house members, while the redistricting committee consisted of eight house members and eight senators, with a lone Democrat in each group. The rest of the committee consisted of Republicans — a ratio proportional to the Legislature at large.

Committee members were appointed by House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, and Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson. Rep. Mike Lefor, R-Dickinson, was the member of the redistricting committee in charge of the southwest portion of the state, but Schatz highlighted contention with the manner the committee was ultimately selected.

“Now, how did (Pollert) choose them? That’s my question too, because I have seniority over half of those people,” Schatz said, noting that some on the committee were freshmen members of the assembly. “You can say geography, ‘Well I’m going to choose them from all over.’ But wouldn’t you choose the people with the most experience doing these things?”

Schatz has served since winning his seat for his first term in 1988, serving through 1990 before taking a reprieve. In 2008 he was again elected and resumed his seat, holding the position ever since.

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Amid population growth outlined in the 2020 U.S. Census, North Dakota’s population grew to nearly 780,000 and making the ideal district size approximately 16,579 residents. Committee members were permitted to create districts up to 5% larger or smaller than that.

Lefor said he reached out to Schatz to get his insight on the matter six to eight weeks ago.

“It was on a Saturday, I offered to go to Bismarck the next Monday or Tuesday to go through this with him,” Lefor said. “It was nothing but crickets.”

POPULATION VERSUS BORDERS

Lefor said Schatz later offered the committee a proposal that was ineligible, as there were no population figures attached to it, noting that flexibility with state borders to the south and west were critical.

“He just divided it into different areas and there’s no way we could accept it because we couldn’t properly understand what it is that he was doing. In addition to that, we did receive a plan from Rep. Ertelt, R-Lisbon, the last day, but that was a statewide plan and we couldn’t properly vet it because the time wasn’t there,” Lefor said. “I didn’t do this to make them unhappy or move them out of a district. I'm very proud of the process that the redistricting committee took. We did an enormous amount of work in a very short period of time, and paid a lot of attention to detail.”

According to Lefor, it was important for people to understand that the purpose of the redistricting is for the decisions to be predicated on population and that any contention with regard to geographical border shapes were nonsensical.

Echoing the sentiments of Lefor, Wardner noted that he understands Schatz complaint but the process did not concern itself with a neat appearance of borders and instead focused on ensuring that districts would encompass the correct number of citizens.

“I know Mr. Schatz wants to be in District 36. Well, it doesn’t work out that way,” Wardner said. “I suppose you could carve it out in other ways too, but this works best because you have to match up with the other districts that are being formed. They usually start from the corners and work in.”

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2021 Redistricting Map Final
This is the final map that was approved by the redistricting committee. (Contributed photo / legis.nd.gov)

According to Lefor, committee members considered polling locations and made every effort to ensure that citizens would not have to drive 40 or 50 miles to vote.

Both Schatz and Lefor agreed that they were opposed to the two sub-districts proposed on Indian reservations, one for Turtle Mountain and another at Fort Berthold. Lefor denounced the measure as balkanizing and unfair.

“I don't believe in sub-districts. I voted against it in committee, I voted against it on the floor. We're all Americans, we're one country. And the further we continue to divide ourselves into different groups or subsets is when we're going to get in trouble,” Lefor said. “Now, like in District 37, you'll have two representatives representing you. In those sub-districts, you only have one. So I believe that those who are (in the district but outside the sub-district) are going to lose a representative.”

According The Williston Herald, Rep. Terry Jones, R-New Town, denounced the sub-districts as "racial gerrymandering."

Jason O’Day is a University of Iowa graduate, with Bachelor’s Degrees in Journalism and Political Science. Before moving to Dickinson in September of 2021, he was a general news reporter at the Creston News Advertiser in rural southwest Iowa. He was born and raised in Davenport, Iowa. With a passion for the outdoors and his Catholic faith, he’s loving life on the Western Edge.
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