BISMARCK — Several North Dakota activist groups have joined forces to lobby a Republican-dominated committee on creating a legislative map that is free of gerrymandering and includes split districts for the state House of Representatives.
Four organizations — North Dakota Voters First, North Dakota Native Vote, the League of Women Voters of North Dakota and BadAss Grandmas for Democracy — held a virtual press conference on Wednesday, Aug. 25, to promote "fair redistricting" and encourage citizen engagement.
A committee of 16 state lawmakers — 14 Republicans and two Democrats — will meet Thursday to kick off the redistricting process in earnest. The panel, which reflects the partisan breakdown of the Legislature, is charged with creating new districts that are roughly equal in population using newly released figures from the 2020 Census. The full Legislature must approve the map, with a vote likely coming in November.
Lawmakers formed 47 districts when they drew the current lines a decade ago, though they can choose to make as few as 40 or as many as 54, according to the state's constitution.
North Dakota’s population has increased by nearly 16% since 2010, and this year’s redistricting is expected to see some seats shift from rural to urban areas. Fast-growing cities like Fargo, Bismarck and Williston are likely to add representation in the Legislature, while already large rural districts could balloon even further due to population loss.
The activists, who supported a failed attempt to establish an independent redistricting committee, say it's a conflict of interest for politicians to be selecting their voters, but North Dakota Voters First Director Rick Gion said the groups will do their best to ensure fairness in the lawmaker-driven process.
BadAss Grandmas co-chair Ellen Chaffee said "fair" districts must be compact and respectful of county, city and tribal boundaries, while attempting to keep racial and ethnic minority communities intact. Chaffee, who led the charge last decade on creating a state ethics commission, said Republican leaders in 2011 chopped up cities like West Fargo into multiple districts and engaged in gerrymandering by trying to protect incumbents from their party.
Committee member Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, said the panel has no intention of gerrymandering, which he said is often used as "a pejorative term" by those who do not approve of a redistricted map for whatever reason. The concept of partisan gerrymandering can't even really happen in North Dakota, where so few Democrats hold office west of Fargo and Grand Forks, he said.
Holmberg, a four-time veteran of the redistricting process, said the mapmakers' first priority will be trying to keep counties, cities and townships intact. He acknowledged that the committee will likely give some consideration to where incumbents live since the final map must be approved by the Legislature, though he said it's "down the list of critical issues."
"We cannot put a complete blind eye (to incumbency) when the Legislature has to vote on the thing," Holmberg said.
The activists also spoke in support of splitting each district into two separate, equally populated House districts. Chaffee said subdivided House districts, which already appear in Minnesota, would allow for closer legislator-to-constituent interaction and better representation of specific interests in large rural districts.
North Dakota Native Vote Director Nicole Donaghy said splitting up House districts could benefit American Indian tribes that have seen their votes diluted by non-Native neighbors. House Minority Leader Josh Boschee, a Fargo Democrat who sits on the committee, has also trumpeted subdivided House districts.
Holmberg said the committee will seriously consider and probably accept subdividing a few districts that include American Indian reservations. The Grand Forks Republican said he supports creating House districts where most of the constituents live on tribal nations if the population figures break that way. Holmberg said South Dakota, where two districts are split to accommodate tribal nations, could be an example for its northern sister state, though he opposes a Minnesota-style map where every district is broken in two.
Districts containing the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation and the Spirit Lake Dakota Reservation are not currently represented by self-identified enrolled tribal members.