Published October 24, 2021

Redistricting Plan Heads to Upcoming Session

Written by
Kim Fundingsland
| The Dakotan

ND lawmakers express concerns

It has happened before, a reconfiguring of North Dakota’s legislative districts, but there’s always something about shifting political boundaries that draws the ire of legislators on both sides of the isle. The upcoming reconvened session of the ND Legislature, with redistricting foremost on the agenda, is expected to be no different. Lawmakers will convene at the State Capitol in Bismarck on November 8.

Although a few other topics are almost certain to be introduced for discussion, such as how to spend more than $1-billion the state is to receive under the American Rescue Plan, the reason for the reconvened session is to come to a consensus on how best to redraw boundaries for the state’s individual voting districts.

Lawmakers will be presented with a proposed realignment. A 16-member committee, composed of eight members each from the House and Senate, were tasked with coming up with a redistricting plan from border to border based on the latest census.

There are currently 47 legislative districts in North Dakota. The proposed redistricting plan keeps that number. It hasn’t always been that way. From 1983-92 there were 53 legislative districts in the state. In 1993 redistricting resulted in a decrease to 49 districts, a number that held until redistricting again following the 2000 census that dropped the number of districts to 47.

Districts are determined by the number of people residing within them, with each district having approximately the same number of residents. For example, after the 2000 census each district averaged 13,664 residents. After the 2010 census that number grew to an average of 14,310 residents.

Leading the way was McKenzie County with a nation-leading increase of 131% from 6,360 residents to 14,704. Watford City, the county's largest community, grew an astounding 256%.

The 2020 census revealed that North Dakota’s population increased 15.8% in ten years from 672,591 to 779,094, the fourth largest percentage increase in population in the United States. Consequently, the number of people comprising each district in the state has risen as well with the new “ideal” district size being 16,576, an increase of 2,266.

Leading the way was McKenzie County with a nation-leading increase of 131% from 6,360 residents to 14,704, or plus 8,344. Watford City, the county’s largest community, grew an astounding 256%.

That each district must contain approximately the same number of residents necessarily means that rural districts are considerably larger, geographically, than those including the state’s larger population centers.

The purpose is to provide representation on an equal basis for all state residents, one Senator and two members of the House of Representatives from each district.

Veteran representative Larry Bellew, R-Dis. 38, Minot, was on the committee of 16 tasked with creating new voting boundaries to present to legislators.

“I was assigned the Minot area. I think we did pretty good,” said Bellew. “I enjoyed it because it was part of the process, but it wasn’t the easiest thing to do. The oil patch grew like weeds, other areas less. Still, we maintained 47 districts. We didn’t try to do it for democrats or republicans.”

Bellew noted that the work of the redistricting committee is not final, but rather a starting point. When the entire legislature convenes, considerable scrutiny and debate is expected.

“The bill goes to Legislative Management, they review it, then the full House, public hearings, and then it gets voted on by the legislature. It’ll start in the House and then to the Senate,” explained Bellew.

Addition of subdistricts

What is expected to be a focus of contention is the proposed creation of subdistricts in District 4, which includes the Fort Berthold Reservation, and District 9 which includes the Turtle Mountain Reservation. As proposed, those two districts would be divided into two subdistricts with representatives being elected from each subdistrict. The district senator would be chosen from votes cast in the both subdistricts.

Rep. Marvin Nelson, D-Dis. 9, Rolla, said he assumes the intent of the redistricting committee was to “allow tribes to have their own representatives.”

“One representative will come out of reservation boundaries and the other from the rest of the district,” said Rep. Terry Jones, R-Dis. 4, New Town. “Somebody is giving the committee very bad advice. I disagree with what I see happening. I think they made a mistake and will ask the legislature to take it out.”

Jones added that District 4 does not “meet the criteria of a distinct group unable to elect representation”, citing previous election of tribal members such as Dawn Charging and Ruth Buffalo.

Bellew said he believes the redistricting plan, as currently proposed, “disenfranchises half of the people in the district” because voters will “only vote for one representative, not two.”

"I disagree with what I see happening. I think [the committee] made a mistake and will ask the legislature to take it out."Rep. Terry Jones, R-Dis. 4, New Town

There’s another issue too regarding subdistricting: what some people believe to be unreliable census numbers within reservation boundaries.

“Rolette County went from 14,000 to 12,000, which is a horrible count. It is actually somewhere between 18,000 and 20,000, I’d guess,” said Nelson. “The census had a real problem here. There’s no home delivery on reservations and no one on the reservation got a packet for the census. We’re already under-represented. That’s the fundamental thing.”

Bellew has voiced his opposition to the addition of sub districts, saying they are “not good for districts or the state overall.” He added, “They were made up specifically because of the American Indians and, to me, that is racially motivated.”

Although a subdistrict falls within reservation boundaries, it does not mean the automatic election of a tribal member. Such is the case with Jones, a resident of New Town, which is within the newly proposed sub district in Dis. 4.

“I will have to run again and win in the subdistrict,” remarked Jones. “I try very hard to represent the reservation and to listen and be there and promote what’s going on. I’m honored to do so and disagree with those who say they are not represented.”

Some legislators will find themselves outside new district boundaries because of the redistricting process. One of those, according to the proposed redistricting plan, is Rep. Chuck Damschen, R-Dis. 10. Damschen resides in the southwest corner of what is presently District 10, an area that is set to be included within the newly proposed boundaries of District 9.

“It puts my district in an area I’ve never represented before,” said Damschen. “I’ll be in District 9. I wasn’t real sold on the way this ended up, but then I didn’t sit in on the meetings, so I don’t know what the conversation was. I certainly don’t want to belittle their work. They worked hard, but I would have liked to have seen something different.”

Under the proposed redistricting plan Damschen, a Republican, will have to run for election in the democratic stronghold of District 9. District 9 is currently represented by three Democrats – Sen. Richard Marcellais, and representatives Tracy Boe and Nelson.

Damschen, who was first elected in 2004, says he has not completely decided but admits to strongly leaning towards running for another term. If so, it would likely be during 2022 against Boe, who resides in proposed Subdistrict 9B.

“In District 10 I’ve had a good working relationship with Representative David Monson. I hate to see that divided, but that’s the way it goes,” remarked Damschen. Lawmakers will hash out their differences during the upcoming reconvened session, but they will only have four days of session left to work with, unless the governor calls a Special Session, which would allow them unlimited time to tackle the redistricting plan and any other urgent issues that may be raised. So far there has been no word that Gov. Burgum would call such a Special Session. Any finalized redistricting plan approved by the legislature would be sent to the governor for his signature.

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