BISMARCK — Sixteen North Dakota lawmakers have been selected to draft the state’s new legislative districts, a hefty task that only comes up once a decade.
A group of leading lawmakers appointed on Wednesday, June 9, eight members of the House of Representatives and eight members of the Senate to serve on an influential committee that will redraw the political boundaries and propose them to the full 141-member Legislature.
The GOP-controlled committee includes 14 Republicans and two Democrats — a reflection of the Legislature’s lopsided partisan makeup. Rep. Bill Devlin, R-Finley, will serve as the committee’s chair and Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, will serve as vice chair.
North Dakota’s population has seen substantial shifts since the last redistricting 10 years ago, including a large influx of people into the western part of the state because of the oil boom. The state’s population has increased by nearly 16% since 2010, according to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, and this year’s redistricting is expected to see some seats shift from rural to urban areas, with Oil Patch towns such as Williston and Watford City adding representation in the Legislature. Meanwhile, some already large rural districts could balloon even further due to population loss and stagnation.
Because of pandemic delays, final census numbers aren’t expected until mid-August, a timeline that will make for a busy fall as the committee needs to draw new districts of roughly equal population and get approval from the Legislature by the end of the year. The Legislature could meet anytime between early November and mid-December to finalize the new map, either using four remaining legislative days for a reconvened session or asking Gov. Doug Burgum to approve a special session.
The all-white committee does not include representation from any of the five Native American tribes based in North Dakota. Native Americans account for the state’s largest non-white constituency, at an estimated 5.6%, and only two lawmakers, both Democrats, are enrolled members of North Dakota tribes.
North Dakota Native Vote executive director Nicole Donaghy said her organization asked for Fargo Democrat Rep. Ruth Buffalo, a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, to be appointed to the committee. House Minority Leader Josh Boschee, D-Fargo, said the Democratic caucus is in communication with Native Vote to solicit their input during the redistricting process, while Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, said the committee recognizes the priorities of the state’s tribal communities and is committed to “keeping reservations whole,” rather than dividing them into separate districts.
The committee also lacks membership from the ultra-conservative Bastiat wing of North Dakota's Republican Party, which has frequently butted heads with GOP leadership and establishment conservatives over the last year. Though the Bastiat Caucus does not disclose its members, the faction makes up a vocal minority of Republicans in the Legislature and holds particular sway in the House.
Boschee predicted that the Republican majority may be more inclined to cut into Bastiat influence than to gerrymander against Democrats, which likely account for a smaller share of the House than the conservative hardliners.
Bismarck Rep. Rick Becker, the founder of the Bastiat caucus, said he doesn’t expect any orchestrated effort to gerrymander against his wing of the party, but added that, “if it comes down to where you put a line,” there will likely be committee members inclined to cut out a lawmaker that they see as “a pain in the butt.”
Wardner dismissed the possibility that redistricting could be used to shore up establishment control of the GOP and noted that Bastiats and mainline Republicans often represent the same districts.
After official census numbers come in this August, the redistricting committee will hold meetings around the state to get local input and allow for public access to the process. Those meetings would typically be held in person, but pandemic changes could mean that they’re held virtually this year.
Besides Devlin, Holmberg and Boschee, the redistricting committee will include:
- Rep. Austen Schauer, R-West Fargo
- Rep. Larry Bellew, R-Minot
- Rep. David Monson, R-Osnabrock
- Rep. Craig Headland, R-Montpelier
- Rep. Mike Nathe, R-Bismarck
- Rep. Mike Lefor, R-Dickinson
- Sen. Brad Bekkedahl, R-Williston
- Sen. Nicole Poolman, R-Bismarck
- Sen. Robert Erbele, R-Lehr
- Sen. Jerry Klein, R-Fessenden
- Sen. Ron Sorvaag, R-Fargo
- Sen. Randy Burckhard, R-Minot
- Sen. Erin Oban, D-Bismarck
Holmberg said nearly 100 lawmakers asked to be on the powerful panel, but leaders chose committee members based on geographic representation. Five members come from rural areas, while 11 come from urban areas and all seven of the state’s largest cities are represented.
Boschee said he's fundamentally opposed to the idea of lawmakers choosing their voters and backed a failed bill that would have charged an independent nonpartisan commission with redistricting, though he noted the committee selected is “fairly reasonable.”
Holmberg said lawmakers drawing the new map could start with the existing districts, allow computer programs to divide up the population equally or employ a mix of the strategies. Boschee said he’s hesitant to build off the existing map because that route favors incumbents, but he said it will be important to respect natural boundaries and keep rural and urban districts as separate as possible.
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