BISMARCK — Later this year, a group of top North Dakota lawmakers will redraw the state's political boundaries for the next decade. The exercise always attracts the attention of incumbent legislators and civically minded residents, but several transparency advocates worry the redistricting plan will be formed behind closed doors and without the public's input.

The Republican-backed bill to establish the conditions of the legislative redistricting process includes a provision that states drafts of the redistricting plan are exempt from open records laws until they're presented to the full Legislature or Legislative Management, a panel that includes top lawmakers. House Bill 1397 further specifies that "any version of a redistricting plan created before the completion of the plan is an exempt record regardless of whether the completed plan is presented or distributed subsequently at a meeting."

A public record that carries an "exempt" designation means whoever holds the record can decide whether to release it to members of the public. The language in the bill is taken directly from redistricting legislation passed a decade ago.

Jack McDonald, an attorney and lobbyist with the North Dakota Newspaper Association, told the Senate Political Subdivisions Committee during a hearing on Friday, March 26, that the bill as written may prevent the public from reviewing and scrutinizing the redrawn lines until late in the process. McDonald noted that the language of the bill even calls into question whether the drafts would be open records when the appointed members of the redistricting committee meet in person.

House Minority Leader Josh Boschee told Forum News Service the bill is likely to be amended to clarify some of the ambiguity about when the drafts will be open to the public. He said the redistricting committee is legally considered to be under Legislative Management, so there's no doubt the drafts of the plan presented at the committee meetings will be publicly available. The change to the bill would make sure that fact is apparent, the Fargo Democrat said.

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Boschee said he is not worried about a lack of transparency in the process after receiving assurance from the Legislature's legal staff that the redistricting committee's meetings will be open. However, Boschee believes an independent nonpartisan commission, not lawmakers, should draw the lines.

House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, a Carrington Republican and the bill's sponsor, said the legislators appointed to the redistricting committee should be able to confidentially consult with legal staff on specific parts of the map. The withholding of preliminary drafts during the redistricting process mirrors the well-established rule that allows lawmakers to forge legislation out of the public eye before introducing it, he said.

House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, stands up to speak on March 3, 2021, at the North Dakota Capitol. Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service
House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, stands up to speak on March 3, 2021, at the North Dakota Capitol. Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service

Pollert told Forum News Service that the Republican lawmakers who lead the redistricting committee will have no intention of engaging in gerrymandering, the drawing of lines that benefit the majority party or specific incumbents. Pollert said he hopes to keep the districts as close to county lines as possible.

Several Native American voting rights activists testified that they would like more transparency and anti-gerrymandering measures in the bill. Nicole Donaghy, director of North Dakota Native Vote, said the votes of Native American communities and American Indian reservations have been "diluted" in the past to prevent adequate representation of Native Americans. Donaghy said the redistricting committee should make sure to consult with tribal nations during the drafting process.

Sen. Jordan Kannianen, a Stanley Republican who represents a district that includes the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, noted that none of the five reservations are split into different districts as the map is drawn now. Sen. Howard Anderson, R-Turtle Lake, said four of the reservations don't have enough people to justify creating a district made up mostly of Indian Country.

Sen. Randy Burkhard, a Minot Republican who chairs the Political Subdivisions Committee, said the panel will meet on the redistricting bill next week and consider any amendments.