MINOT, N.D. — With the census counts completed, the State of North Dakota, like every other state in the union, will begin the process of redrawing political boundaries to keep them in line with shifting population realities.

A group of left-wing activists in North Dakota has set out to poison the well in this process, using astroturfing tactics to level preemptive accusations of gerrymandering before a single line is even drawn.

Gerrymandering is the practice of drawing political lines to strengthen your political party while weakening the other side.

Astroturfing is when political activists try to manufacture the appearance of being much more numerous than they actually are.

The latter is exactly what a group called North Dakota Voters First, formerly known as North Dakotans for Public Integrity, is trying to do around the redistricting effort.

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This is the dishonest, billionaire-backed group that tried to hammer through sweeping changes to how we vote in North Dakota — including things like ranked-choice voting for the statewide ballot and the near abolishment of political parties — under the guise of modest reforms to deployed military voting. Their petition circulators for their ballot measure lied to North Dakotans about the nature of the measure, and it was ultimately kept off the ballot by the state Supreme Court due to problems with the way it was circulated.

And now they're astroturfing.

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"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," Jeremy Turley reports.

But, under scrutiny, it becomes clear that there aren't really "several groups" involved.

The umbrella group for this underhanded initiative is, as we've covered, North Dakota Voters First.

The other groups involved are North Dakota Native Vote, the League of Women Voters, and the BadAss Grandmas for Democracy.

Except Nicole Donaghy, the director of North Dakota Native Vote, is on the board of North Dakota Voters First.

Ellen Chaffee, the head of the BadAss Grandmas, is on the board of North Dakota Voters First and was a founder of that group.

Carol Sawicki is a board member for the League of Women Voters and the chairwoman of North Dakota Voters First.

In the wild, some animals use a tactic where they fluff up their feathers or puff out their gills to make themselves seem bigger and more menacing than they are. That's what these people are doing. The news articles make it appear as though there's a small regiment of activists involved in this initiative.

North Dakota Voters First organizers haul nearly 37,000 signatures into the state Capitol Monday, July 6, for review by the Secretary of State's Office. (Adam Willis / The Forum)
North Dakota Voters First organizers haul nearly 37,000 signatures into the state Capitol Monday, July 6, for review by the Secretary of State's Office. (Adam Willis / The Forum)

The reality is a small group of activists, each wearing a lot of hats.

These people also aren't being honest about their politics. "This is nonpartisan work, and we want a fair map for all North Dakotans," Voters First Director Rick Gion told reporters at a press conference on Wednesday.

Nonpartisan?

Rick Gion is a former communications director for the North Dakota Democratic-NPL who also served on the staff of former Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan. His organization has exactly zero right-of-center people in its leadership.

Its board members are Sawicki, Chaffee, Donaghy, Don Morrison, a former executive director of the Dakota Resource Council, a left-wing environmentalist group that hasn't met a coal mine or oil well they don't want to be shut down, and Scott Skokos, who is the current director of that group.

If you're going to throw around terms like "nonpartisan" and "bipartisan," wouldn't you want to loop someone in who is, you know, conservative? Or at least not dyed-in-the-wool liberal?

During the 2018 election, Donaghy and North Dakota Native Vote worked very closely with Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp's campaign. Donaghy is also an employee of the Dakota Resource Council and, per campaign disclosures filed with the FEC, has been donating to left-wing causes through Act Blue since 2015.

Sawicki, too, has donated exclusively to left-wing causes, giving thousands of dollars since 2012 to former President Barack Obama's campaign, the North Dakota Democratic-NPL, the Democratic National Committee, and ActBlue.

Chaffee has a similarly left-wing pattern of donations to many of the same causes and was a candidate for Lt. Governor for the Democrats in 2012.

That these people have uniformly left-of-center politics is not the problem. Being liberal is not what makes the wrong.

Trying to amplify their message through astroturfing doesn't necessarily make them wrong either, though it's not exactly an integrity move, and their baseless insinuations of gerrymandering before any lines have been drawn are unfortunate.

They are dishonest, though, with their astroturfing and claims of nonpartisanship.

There may be several groups involved here on paper. Still, in reality, it's just one small group of organizers who are pantomiming nonpartisanship yet can't seem to find a Republican to work with.

When regional reporters write stories about the Bastiat Caucus of Republican lawmakers in the Legislature, they label them as conservative or even "ultra-conservative," and that's apt.

We need to do the same with North Dakota Voters First and its allies to better inform the public.

To comment on this article, visit www.sayanythingblog.com

Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at rport@forumcomm.com.