BISMARCK — North Dakota lawmakers tasked with redrawing the state's political geography have advanced a plan to subdivide state House districts around two American Indian reservations — a move that could give tribal members more power at the polls.
The Republican-dominated state redistricting committee voted 10-6 on Wednesday, Sept. 29, in favor of a plan that would create two separate House districts centered around the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation in north-central North Dakota and the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in the west.
Tribal leaders have appealed to the committee for split districts, which they believe will afford them a better opportunity to elect a candidate of their choosing. The full Legislature will consider the split districts and the entire redrawn map at a special session in early November.
North Dakota is currently divided into legislative districts each with one senator and two at-large representatives. Under the proposal to split two of the 47 districts, 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 part of the district. The remaining 45 districts would still have two at-large representatives.
The drafts passed Wednesday would create a House district around Fort Berthold in which two-thirds of the population would be Native American and a House district around Turtle Mountain in which more than four-fifths of the population would be Native American. South Dakota already has two split House districts to accommodate Native American populations.
The panel concluded that the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation met the population threshold to be considered for a subdistrict, while the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the Spirit Lake Tribe did not have enough people living on their respective reservations to comprise a majority even in a split district.
Lisa DeVille, a member of the MHA Nation who unsuccessfully ran for the North Dakota Senate last year, told the committee that Fort Berthold residents haven't recently been able to propel their preferred candidate into the Legislature because of the district's configuration. White residents of the district outnumber American Indian residents, according to 2020 Census figures.
“We need to be at the table, and we need fair representation," DeVille said.
Rep. Terry Jones, a New Town Republican who currently represents the district, railed against the idea of subdistricts, saying the nearly 35% of reservation residents who are not Native American would lose their representation. Jones, who has a history of making controversial remarks about race, said Native Americans living in North Dakota are residents of the state and should not be given preferential treatment through subdistricts.
The primary motivation for the committee's subdistrict supporters appeared to be the legal repercussions of not splitting districts around the two reservations. Legal staff members informed the panel of cases in which courts found states had violated the Voting Rights Act by failing to create districts where racial and ethnic minorities have an opportunity to elect their preferred candidates.
Longtime Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, said he believes lawmakers have a chance to take the driver's seat on creating subdistricts rather than leaving it to the courts. Holmberg added that in addition to recognizing the legal pressure to split districts, he believes "it's the right thing to do" for Native American residents of Fort Berthold and Turtle Mountain.
Opponents of subdistricts, like Montpelier Republican Rep. Craig Headland, said they took issue with subdividing districts along race and didn't want to make a decision based on speculation about potential litigation.
All of the proposals for redrawn districts, including a draft of the full map, can be found at www.legis.nd.gov/assembly/67-2021/session-interim/2021-legislative-redistricting-maps.