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In the North Dakota Legislature, it's still mostly a 'roaring farce'

"A two-house legislature with the senatorial and representative districts identical is a roaring farce. There would have been more one-house advocates if it had been foreseen."...

"A two-house legislature with the senatorial and representative districts identical is a roaring farce. There would have been more one-house advocates if it had been foreseen."

This editorial comment was written by a disgusted editor at The Bismarck Tribune on Aug. 3, 1889, as he observed the proceedings of the constitutional convention meeting in Bismarck to launch the state with a new constitution.

His comments followed the defeat of a proposal to create different districts for the election of Senate and House members. This was followed by a decision to elect senators and representatives from the same districts.

The Tribune's observations have more validity today than they did 120 years ago. The differences between the two houses are even fewer today. Not only are both houses chosen from the same districts, but they all have four-year terms and all run in packs in the same elections.

The decision to distort representation in this manner was not made to provide two houses with different points of view but for the convenience of the legislators themselves. They seem to have forgotten that the Legislature is not the personal domain of those sitting at the time but that it belongs to the people for the people.

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As the Tribune commented, with two houses consisting of duplicate representation, it becomes difficult to defend the existence of two separate houses. However, arguments over a one-house legislature in North Dakota must be classified as "academic" since its adoption is less likely than a return of the glacier. So, let's set that aside.

But the next session of the Legislature will be addressing legislative reapportionment since figures from the 2010 decennial census will be available. It would be an appropriate time to revisit the question of subdividing each Senate district into two subdistricts for the election of representatives.

Subdivision would provide several improvements to the current system. First of all, it would reduce the size of the districts for members of the House, some of whom are now running in Senate districts as large as Rhode Island or Connecticut. Smaller House districts would make it possible for more people to run - cutting the cost of campaigns and the time required to campaign. House members could become better acquainted with and more accountable to their constituents.

Election statistics indicate that thousands of votes are not cast in House races. There are two likely reasons: 1) Many folks do not know they can vote for two candidates in the House races; 2) some candidates use the system to double-cross running mates by having supporters vote for only one candidate. In other words, the current system with four-way house contests is being manipulated. A single-member House district would address both of these problems.

Legislators often claim that the government that is closest to the people is the best. With a division of the Senate districts, the House of Representatives would be closer to the people. And it would make our two-house Legislature less of a "roaring farce."

Omdahl is a former North Dakota lieutenant governor and retired political science teacher at the University of North Dakota. E-mail ndmatters@q.com

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