The first meeting of the legislative redistricting committee provided a good indication of the rural-urban split that will enter into negotiations over the new district boundaries for electing legislators over the next 10 years.
The decennial census once again documented substantial population losses in rural districts, meaning that they must be expanded to encompass the equal population required by the one-person, one-vote rule. To ward off this expansion, the rural legislators on the redistricting committee proposed increasing the size of the legislature. Under the state constitution, the body could be increased from its present 47 districts up to as many as 53.
Each additional legislative district would cost $1.2 million in salaries and expenses during the next 10-year period. Since urban districts will not be greatly impacted by the new census data, their legislators seem to be balking at the idea of increasing the cost of legislative operations.
(In the 1980s, we had 53 senators elected from 51 districts. And that was before we had money running out of the mattresses.)
Rural legislators argue that money should not be the consideration. Sen. Randy Christmann of Hazen, who represents Oliver, Mercer and a good chunk of Morton, noted that representativeness was more important than money. Fellow rural committee members Senator Joe Miller (R) of Park River, Rep. Jerry Kelsh (D) of Fullerton and Senator Curtis Olafson (R) of Edinburg, agreed.
Christmann makes a good point but it raises another question: how many legislators are needed to constitute a representative assembly? New Hampshire and North Dakota have the largest legislatures in the country when calculated on a per capita basis. North Dakota already has a larger senate than California, Florida, New Jersey, Texas, Ohio and a couple dozen other larger states.
If state legislators across the nation can represent many more citizens than can North Dakota legislators, it seems that "representativeness" cannot be directly correlated to the number of constituents. So what does "representativeness" mean?
In North Dakota, legislators do not directly represent their districts on issues. When they run for office, their campaign literature proves that they aren't getting elected on the issues but rather on being a "cut of the district." Issues are minor as they list their community activities, church membership, service clubs, economic development committees and civic achievements. It's like saying "you can trust me."
Legislative campaigns do not consist of public debates before crowds of voters. Basically, campaigns consist of door-to-door canvassing, plus quick handshakes at church suppers, auction sales, bingo parties, dances and other community gatherings. Issues are rarely discussed in the process.
So there is little or no answering to the public for the hundreds of decisions made in the legislature, meaning that accountability is a missing ingredient in the concept of representativeness. With the minority party unable to muster the means to challenge incumbents in many districts, legislators are unfettered in their voting.
Legislators who feel that representativeness can be best achieved by more districts with fewer constituents ought to give serious consideration to using their constitutional authority to divide senate districts into two house districts so that at least the house members can be more "representative" in the process.
Even though dividing the senate districts is a viable alternative to increasing the size of the legislature, creating separate smaller house districts will not be done because the redistricting committee is afraid that some incumbents would end up in the same districts, resulting in intraparty warfare.
So when push comes to shove, considerations such as money and incumbent protection trump the argument of representativeness.
(Lloyd Omdahl is a political scientist and former North Dakota lieutenant governor. His column appears Sundays.)