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North Dakota lawmakers pass redistricting plan that could boost Native American voting power

The map, developed by a Republican-led committee, morphs three rural districts — two in the northeast and one in the southeast — into new districts in the Fargo area, the Williston area and the southwest corner of the state.

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North Dakota Rep. Bill Devlin, a Finley Republican and the chairman of the Redistricting Committee, speaks during a debate over subdivided House districts on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021. Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service

BISMARCK — Both chambers of the North Dakota Legislature have passed a proposal for redrawing the state's political boundaries into 47 legislative districts of roughly equal population.

The map, developed by a Republican-led committee, morphs three rural districts — two in the northeast and one in the southeast — into new districts in the Fargo area, the Williston area and the southwest corner of the state. The shifting lines mirror the trends of rural-to-urban migration and explosive growth in the once sparsely populated Oil Patch.

The Senate voted overwhelmingly on Wednesday, Nov. 10, to approve the plan, a day after the House of Representatives did the same. The proposal will now head to Gov. Doug Burgum, whose spokesman declined to comment on the matter.

The House and Senate each spent considerable time debating the merits of including subdivided House districts around two American Indian reservations before narrowly approving the idea.

Under the proposal to split House districts around the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation and the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, one senator would still serve the whole district, but the population would be divided roughly in half for House districts, with one representative taking an area encompassing most of the Native American population and the other taking the majority-white surrounding area.

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Supporters of the split House districts say they give Native Americans an opportunity to win legislative races and must be established to comply with the federal Voting Rights Act .

Rep. Bill Devlin, a Finley Republican and the chairman of the Redistricting Committee, said drawing up the subdistricts around the state's two most populous reservations was necessary to avoid illegally diluting the Native American vote.

“I firmly believe that under the federal law and the court decisions that have been established and upheld, we had to do this," Devlin said. "We had no choice.”

Rep. Austen Schauer, R-West Fargo, said lawmakers should learn from South Dakota, where a federal court ordered the state to incorporate a subdivided House district around an American Indian reservation after a costly lawsuit. South Dakota currently has two split House districts.

Rep. Ruth Buffalo, a Fargo Democrat and a citizen of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, advocated for subdistricts, which she said would help the reservation elect more reflective political representation.

Opponents of the split districts argued Native Americans shouldn't receive different treatment than every other North Dakotan.

Republican Rep. Terry Jones, representing the Fort Berthold city of New Town, said establishing split districts would be "racial gerrymandering." Jones, who has a history of making controversial remarks about race , said he consulted with an unnamed lawyer on the issue and came to the conclusion there isn't enough evidence that the courts would require North Dakota to institute split districts if sued by the tribes.

Rep. Dan Ruby, R-Minot, said he hates to legislate based on the threat of lawsuits, noting that the state will likely end up in court no matter what they do.

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Editor's note: The Redistricting Committee made two very minor changes to the above map Tuesday. An updated map has not yet been made available.

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North Dakota Rep. Terry Jones, R-New Town, speaks during a debate over subdivided House districts on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021. Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service

Jeremy Turley is a Bismarck-based reporter for Forum News Service, which provides news coverage to publications owned by Forum Communications Company.
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