Port: North Dakota tribes sue over 2 not equalling 3

In a lawsuit that was inevitable, Native American interests are arguing that North Dakota's new legislative map gives them less representation.

Redistricting Committee
The North Dakota state redistricting committee met Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, at the Hilton Garden Inn in Fargo regarding the legislative redistricting for the eastern portion of the state.
Chris Flynn / The Forum

MINOT, N.D. — There was always going to be a lawsuit filed over North Dakota's redistricting map.

Certain left-wing factions and activist groups have invested too much rhetoric in the idea that any redistricting process overseen by elected officials is inherently racist and partisan, etc. They were never going to let North Dakota's lawmakers redraw the state's district lines without a legal challenge, even if they had to strain to find the pretext for one.

Unfortunately, our lawmakers spent their November special session ladling out a heaping helping of pretext, and now the inevitable lawsuit filed challenging the map lawmakers drew has more substance than it otherwise would have.

At issue is the way our state's political boundaries are drawn around Native American communities.

Some wanted those lines drawn in a way that explicitly promoted a political outcome: Namely, the election of Native American members of the Legislature.


Two of the state's tribes, the Turtle Mountain Chippewa and the Spirit Lake Sioux, even brought a proposal that would have drawn one geographically massive district around their two reservations.

That proposal was the literal definition of gerrymandering — which is not a good thing even when in pursuit of what we might believe is a good cause — and was promptly rejected by lawmakers who also noted that it was made very late in the redistricting process.

Instead, what our lawmakers decided to do to placate demands for pro-Native American gerrymandering was to create subdistricts for the state House of Representatives in two of the state's 47 legislative districts.

If you're not up on your civics, prior to this most recent redistricting every legislative district in the state was represented by a senator and two representatives, all elected to the same four-year terms by the entire legislative district. Under the redistricting plan, there are two districts, one encompassing the Turtle Mountain Reservation and the other the Fort Berthold Reservation, which now have subdistricts. This means that the people in those districts will vote, as a full district, for one senator, and then each subdistrict will vote for one representative.

And the subdistricts are drawn — gerrymandered, dare I say it — to include the tribal communities. Thus all but ensuring that a tribal member will get elected from those districts.

This was a patently ludicrous decision, which is something I argued at the time .

Under this plan, in 45 of the 47 legislative districts citizens get to vote for one senator and two representatives. In the reaming two districts, the citizens get to vote for one senator and just one representative.

That's demonstrably unfair for everyone living in those districts, not just our Native American friends, and now the activist lawyers, who, let us remember, were always going to file suit, now have a nice and juicy bone to gnaw on.


Douglas Yankton, chairman of the Spirit Lake tribe, said in a release about the lawsuit that "the map adopted by the North Dakota Legislature silences Native American voters on every issue, lowers the chance Native voters could elect a candidate they feel best represents their community, and prevents communities in these splintered districts from receiving a fair share of public resources."

We should be clear that the intent of these subdistricts was not to marginalize anyone. As a practical matter of politics, nobody is getting a partisan advantage. District 4, which is historically a very Republican district, will likely elect a Democrat under this plan. District 9, which is currently an all-Democrat district, will likely elect a Republican.

Also, we shouldn't ignore the fact that this plan was endorsed by Native American interests. Mark Fox, chair of Three Affiliated Tribes of Fort Berthold, which, notably, is not party to this lawsuit, said the plan "gives an opportunity to have stronger and fairer representation at the state legislative level."

“It’s a start for something to be built up on for tribal nations — a more reflective state government. It’s a step in the right direction overall,” said Rep. Ruth Buffalo , a Democrat from Fargo and a member of Fox's tribe.

But the math of this situation is exigent.

Under this plan, most North Dakotans get to vote for three lawmakers, but some, and in particular those living on and around Native American reservations, only get to vote for two.

Two does not equal three.

Who knows what the courts will do with this lawsuit. Judges have endorsed and upheld and in some instances even created themselves similarly bizarre subdistricting plans in other states ( South Dakota is one example ) which is a reminder that the judiciary is every bit as capable of obnoxiously benighted "solutions" as our elected officials.


But let's hope someone, somewhere, corrects the math.

It's not wise to draw legislative lines in service of any particular constituency, be it political or racial, but if we're going to have subdistricts in North Dakota, we must have them for all.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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