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Port: Legislature on path to use inequality to create political equality

Can it really be that the only way to comply with the Voting Rights Act, and the various edicts of the court issued based on that law, require North Dakota to give the residents of two legislative districts with large Native American populations one less elected representative than every other district in the state?

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Campaign signs scattered on the Belcourt (N.D.) city limits on Thursday, Oct 9, 2014, outside the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation. The reservation's residents will take part in the North Dakota General Elections on Nov. 5, 2014, as well as tribal elections. (Logan Werlinger/Grand Forks Herald)
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MINOT, N.D. — The state Legislature is in session to, among other issues, attend to the necessity of redistricting.

Currently, every legislative district in the state elects a senator and two representatives to identical four-year terms.

The plan developed by an interim redistricting committee, that was debated on the floor of the House today, includes subdivisions for the House members in two legislative districts.

District 9, which encompasses the Turtle Mountain Reservation , and District 4, which includes the Fort Berthold Reservation , would be divided with one of the representatives elected from each district. This would mean that the residents of these two districts, including the voting populations in the reservation communities, could only vote for two members of the Legislature every two years.

The voters from every other district in the state would still vote for three.

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During the debate on the House floor, proponents of this subdivision plan, including redistricting committee chairman Rep. Bill Devlin , R-Finley, insisted that it is necessary to help the State of North Dakota avoid a costly legal battle. Their contention is that the Voting Rights Act , as well court precedent, forces North Dakota's hand.

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This is what must be done, they say.
It was a debate that was surreal to watch ( click here to see the video ; the bill is HB1504).

Can it really be that the only way to comply with the Voting Rights Act, and the various edicts of the court issued based on that law, require North Dakota to give the residents of two legislative districts with large Native American populations one less elected representative than every other district in the state?

That's the outcome we want in the name of equal treatment under the law?

The problem, or potential problem, proponents of subdivision are trying to solve is that the tribes have struggled to elect candidates from their communities. I don't know if that's true or not. I'm not even sure it's something we should care about.

We aren't supposed to draw lines to promote specific political outcomes. That's gerrymandering.

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PHOTO: District 4 subdivision proposal
North Dakota's redistricting committee approved a plan Wednesday, Sept. 29, to divide District 4 into two House subdistricts, one of which (4A) encompasses the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. Special to the Forum

We shouldn't want a balkanized political system. We should want candidates with broad, not narrow, appeal.

But setting all that aside, and stipulating, for the sake of argument, to the idea that the conclusions the courts and the federal government have arrived are fair and worth respecting, can we really say that subdividing just two districts, giving them less political representation than other districts, is the right outcome?

At what point should empiricism trump legalese and politics?

I live in District 5 in Minot. I have three members of the Legislature I can vote for.

If this subdivision plan becomes law, the people of Districts 4 and 9 could only vote for two.

Three is more than two.

Some people would get three. Other people would get two.

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That's just math.

Telling us that this inequality is what the Voting Rights Act, and court precedent, requires isn't good enough.

Rep. Terry Jones , a Republican from District 4, so someone directly impacted by subdivision, moved to divide the subdivision language from the redistricting bill, but it was defeated by a 37-54 vote, meaning the subdivision plan and the unequal representation it creates survives.

To comment on this article, visit www.sayanythingblog.com

Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at rport@forumcomm.com .

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 rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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