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Voter groups advocate 'fair maps' in North Dakota legislative redistricting

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Redrawing ND

Supporters who unsuccessfully pushed for North Dakota's Ethics Commission to be in charge of reapportioning the Legislature are focused on upcoming redistricting done by state lawmakers, with an eye toward pushing for subdivided House districts and guarding against gerrymandering.

The Legislature's 16-member Redistricting Committee meets Thursday at the state Capitol to begin redrawing legislative districts for the next 10 years, using newly released 2020 Census data. The Legislature is expected to meet in November to approve a new map in time for 2022 elections.

Four voter groups including North Dakota Voters First, which proposed the unsuccessful 2020 ballot measure tasking the ethics panel with redistricting, are calling for "fair maps" respecting existing boundaries and community makeups. The state Supreme Court removed the measure from the ballot for its petition not including the proposal's full text.

The measure also proposed subdivided House districts, which the groups support for bringing representatives closer to constituents, especially as rural districts are expected to be larger and fewer due to urban population growth.

Subdivided House districts would essentially split a legislative district in two, with a representative elected from each half, versus at-large as now. North Dakota's constitution does allow House subdistricts.

Ellen Chaffee, of Badass Grandmas for Democracy, discusses voter groups' priorities in North Dakota legislative redistricting. Video courtesy of North Dakota Voters First

"This is nonpartisan work, and we want a fair map for all North Dakotans," Voters First Director Rick Gion told reporters Wednesday.

The groups, which include North Dakota Native Vote and the League of Women Voters of North Dakota, also raised concerns of gerrymandering, or drawing boundaries to favor certain incumbents.

"This is not about partisan politics ... this is about representation. This is about having equal access to electing somebody that knows the community," Native Vote Executive Director Nicole Donaghy said.

Ellen Chaffee, a member of the BadAss Grandmas for Democracy who helped lead the 2018 Ethics Commission measure, cited "explicit" comments by former House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo, in 2011 after the last redistricting, such as "There's a few people that we would have preferred to protect that we weren't able to get done."

The former top House Republican told the Tribune that Chaffee didn't take his comments "in the right way." 

"Every time you redistrict, there's a shift in the population, and because of that you have to get a certain number of people in each district, and sometimes we end up putting two Republicans that used to be from different districts in the same district, and that's what my comment meant," Carlson said.

Chaffee is "always digging for things that aren't there. We probably have the fairest system around for as far as redistricting goes," he added.

Chaffee also raised concerns that the Redistricting Committee consists of 14 Republicans and two Democrats, and has 14 men and two women and no Native Americans or other minorities.

The panel's political makeup reflects the power balance of the Legislature, which is Republican-controlled.

Thirty-two women serve in the 141-seat Legislature. At least three lawmakers claim a tribal affiliation.

House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, said he emphasized experience and geographic representation in House Republican membership of the panel. 

"I thought I did a pretty fair job on that," he said.

Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, said his criteria for Senate Republican membership were people "with integrity" and geographic distribution. 

He said the Tribal and State Relations Committee, which he chairs, is taking input on redistricting from tribes, which he intends to report to the redistricting panel.

Facing Republican control in redistricting, Gion said the groups "will try our best" as they did against certain voting-related bills in the 2021 Legislature.

Chaffee said, "Anyone who is interested in how things work in Bismarck can watch this from start to finish without too much difficulty and can have an impact on that. Our major goal ... is to engage people with the process."

North Dakota has 47 legislative districts, each with one senator and two representatives.

The Redistricting Committee meeting will be available online at video.legis.nd.gov.

Reach Jack Dura at 701-250-8225 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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