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Redistricting lawsuits will not change North Dakota's legislative map this year

Attorneys representing parties in two lawsuits said the litigation over the new districts won't change North Dakota's political boundaries before the November general election.

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The North Dakota Legislature approved redrawn legislative districts for the state in November 2021.
Screenshot via North Dakota Legislature
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BISMARCK — Two lawsuits challenging North Dakota's new legislative districts will not affect the political map for this year’s election cycle, according to lawyers working on the cases.

Lawmakers crafted and passed a plan last year that redrew the state's legislative boundaries into 47 districts of roughly equal population. States must reconfigure their district lines every 10 years to accommodate population changes.

As in the past, each North Dakota district will elect one state senator and two representatives, but the new map also includes 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.

In February, the split House districts became the subject of two lawsuits — one brought by a pair of Native American tribes and tribal citizens, and another brought by Republican party officials and voters.

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Lawyers representing parties in both lawsuits told Forum News Service the litigation over the new districts won't change the boundaries before the November general election. Trials in the two cases have not yet been scheduled, but the attorneys believe they will likely take place next spring or summer.

Turtle Mountain-Spirit Lake lawsuit

Mapmakers said creating split House districts was intended to comply with federal law and to give Native American voters a chance to elect the representative of their choice, but two tribes believe the approved map illegally diminishes their voting power.

The Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa sued the state in February, arguing the subdistricts were drawn in a way that violates the federal Voting Rights Act, a 1965 law that outlawed discriminatory voting practices.

Turtle Mountain claims 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.

The Spirit Lake Tribe joined Turtle Mountain in the lawsuit, alleging the new boundaries dilute the votes of its tribal members. The tribe's east-central North Dakota reservation sits in a majority-white district. Mapmakers said Spirit Lake didn't have a high enough population to warrant special treatment.

The tribes made an unsuccessful last-minute plea to lawmakers for a district that would have enveloped the two reservations. Michael Carter, a Colorado-based attorney for the tribes, said lawmakers could have avoided a lawsuit if they had adopted that plan.

A federal judge last month denied the state's request to dismiss the tribes' lawsuit. Attorney General Drew Wrigley, whose office is defending the state, declined to comment on either redistricting case.

Tim Purdon, a Bismarck lawyer representing the tribes, told Forum News Service his clients would have liked a federal judge to place an injunction on the new legislative districts before the primary election, but they didn't petition for one after it became clear the courts weren't going to honor that kind of request.

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In February, the U.S. Supreme Court signaled through its ruling in an Alabama redistricting case that it didn't have any appetite for changing legislative maps so close to an election.

Carter and Purdon are hoping the tribes will emerge victorious from a trial next year and a new political map with a majority-Native American district encompassing the tribes will be created before the 2024 primary election.

GOP lawsuit

In a separate February lawsuit against the state, District 4 GOP Chairman Chuck Walen, whose district encompasses the Fort Berthold Reservation, and Paul Henderson, a Republican from District 9, which now includes Turtle Mountain, alleged the split House districts amount to illegal "racial gerrymandering."

The lawsuit argues citizens of the split districts have unequal representation compared to other North Dakota citizens. While constituents in the 45 districts without subdistricts have two representatives in the state House, those living in a split House district will only have one.

Bob Harms, a Bismarck lawyer representing Walen and Henderson, said there isn't any historic racial bias in Districts 4 or 9 that prevents voters from electing the legislative candidates of their choice. Harms mentioned that Native American candidates have won elections in both districts over the last 20 years when subdistricts didn't exist.

A panel of three federal judges denied the plaintiffs' motion for an injunction prior to the primary election, saying there wasn't enough time to change the redistricted map before voters cast ballots. Harms' team attempted a "long shot" appeal of that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, but they withdrew it last month.

Harms said his clients are "disappointed that the courts will allow unconstitutional law to stand for one election cycle."

The Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation has intervened in the lawsuit as a defendant in an attempt to keep the subdistricts in District 4, which it believes will boost tribal members' chance of electing a representative.

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"The tribes all along have just been asking the state to comply with the Voting Rights Act," said Carter, who is also representing MHA Nation. "That request was granted to MHA but not to Spirit Lake and Turtle Mountain. That’s why we’re here."

Harms said he feels confident his side will prevail when the case goes to trial next year.

GOP lawsuit by Jeremy Turley on Scribd

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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