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North Dakota tribes sue state over new legislative districts

The Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and Spirit Lake Tribe allege that new legislative districts approved last year illegally diminish the voting power of tribal residents. Lawmakers who crafted the political map say they complied with federal laws.

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Members of North Dakota's redistricting committee sit in a meeting at the state Capitol on Aug. 26, 2021.
Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service

BISMARCK — Two Native American tribes have filed a lawsuit against North Dakota alleging that new legislative districts approved last year illegally diminish the voting power of tribal residents.

Lawmakers crafted and passed a plan last year that redrew the state's political boundaries into 47 districts of roughly equal population.

The plan included two subdivided House districts around the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation and the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. In those two districts, mapmakers divided the population in half for House districts, assigning one representative to an area encompassing most of the Native American population and the other to the majority-white surrounding area.

District 9 by Jeremy Turley on Scribd

The move was intended to comply with the federal Voting Rights Act and give Native American voters a chance to elect the representative of their choice, said Grand Forks GOP Sen. Ray Holmberg, who sat on the redistricting committee.

But the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa argues in a lawsuit filed Monday, Feb. 7, the split House district encompassing its northern North Dakota reservation packs Native American voters into a single district, minimizing their opportunity to affect multiple House races. The tribe also contends that Native Americans living in the non-reservation subdistrict will have their votes diluted by a white majority.

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The Spirit Lake Tribe joins Turtle Mountain in the lawsuit, alleging that the redistricting plan dilutes Native American voters in and around its reservation in east-central North Dakota.

Representatives from Spirit Lake originally asked mapmakers to create a split House district around their reservation, but legislators denied the proposal because the tribe lacked the requisite population to make a majority even in a subdivided district. The tribal nation is now enveloped in a majority-white district as it was for the last decade.

Just before the November special session, the two tribes made a late-game proposal to combine their reservations — located 90 miles apart — into a single district. Holmberg said lawmakers rejected the idea because the proposed district packed Native Americans together and appeared to be gerrymandered.

In the 32-page lawsuit, Turtle Mountain and Spirit Lake ask a federal judge to throw out the new political districts and require lawmakers to draw a map that “does not dilute, cancel out, or minimize the voting strength of Native American voters."

Spirit Lake Tribal Chairman Douglas Yankton said in a news release 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."

Holmberg said lawmakers were guided by the Voting Rights Act every step of the way and tried to be fair to the state's five Native American tribes.

Secretary of State Al Jaeger, who is named as a defendant in the lawsuit because of his position, declined to comment, saying he was not aware of the case before being contacted by Forum News Service.

Jeremy Turley is a Bismarck-based reporter for Forum News Service, which provides news coverage to publications owned by Forum Communications Company.
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