Grand Forks heads for ‘major’ political shift in wake of census numbers
Over the next several months, legislators from around the state will meet in committee to redraw the borders of state legislative districts.
In the last 10 years, Grand Forks’ southern end has grown. A lot.
A rush of new residents and construction has meant thousands of new people in the area, driving up the number of constituents for state Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks. In his legislative zone — District 17 — the latest U.S. Census Bureau numbers show the population has surged from about 13,900 people to more than 20,400.
That means change is on the way, likely dramatically redrawing Holmberg’s district, which now includes not just Grand Forks’ south end, but rural areas south and west of the city. That change is doubly likely given how much population counts have shrunk in District 42, near UND’s campus.
"The numbers are the numbers,” Holmberg said this week. “We have a district that's probably 4,000 people short. And of course, it's not next to the district that is 4,000 people too many."
Over the next several months, legislators from around the state will meet in committee to redraw the borders of state legislative districts. They’ll have to try to keep them all roughly the same size, which is now an average of about 16,600 people. In Grand Forks, that could mean significantly different political maps, reorienting local politics for the next decade.
It has led to speculation that at least one rural district immediately neighboring Grand Forks could be eliminated as map-makers accommodate for explosive growth in Fargo and on the western side of the state — all while balancing changes like those in Grand Forks.
There are two other districts that divvy up the rest of Grand Forks, and though they didn’t see as much change, they’ll be subject to the same statewide push-and-pull that every other district will soon undergo. District 43, which includes the suburban heart of Grand Forks, is about 1,500 people short of the new average.
District 18 — which includes Grand Forks’ downtown area, rural spaces to the north and Grand Forks Air Force Base — is nearly 3,000 people short of a new population number. That could be huge for leaders like state Rep. Corey Mock, a Democrat who represents the district and won his seat by just a handful of votes in 2020.
"Say we stick with 47 legislative districts and nothing else changes fundamentally," Mock said. "I think Grand Forks is going to see a major shift.”
But there’s special concern about District 42, where state Sen. Curt Kreun, a Republican, worries that what he believes was a census undercount of college students — who were elsewhere during the pandemic — could mean the new number for his district is inaccurate. Census figures show UND’s district saw the second-biggest drop in population of any district statewide, occurring just when officials at UND’s Twamley Hall and beyond were worried about the possibility of a mid-COVID undercount.
"So now (students) are back, but we haven't counted them. I don't know if we can estimate or not,” Kreun said this week. He said he’s hoping some sort of weighting can be added to the upcoming redistricting process to compensate.
Not so, said John Bjornson, director of North Dakota’s Legislative Council.
“The (census) numbers are all we have,” Bjornson told the Herald via email. “We really have no alternative.”
Bjornson said the process for redistricting will start in just a matter of days. The Legislature’s Redistricting Committee holds its first meeting on Aug. 26. By the end of the year, they’re expected to have completed a new map for full legislative approval, one that hews as closely as practicable to equal districts.
And as state legislators weigh the future of their political maps, the same thing will soon happen at Grand Forks City Hall. City Clerk Sherie Lundmark said the city can’t begin its own redistricting until the state finishes its process. But once it kicks off, it’ll begin a collaborative process between city and county leaders that must produce maps before the end of the year — potentially upending city politics, too.
“Depending on how much (the city has) grown, we may have to end up shuffling the ward lines of all seven (City Council) wards," City Council President Dana Sande said. He stopped himself. "Well, I'm assuming we'll have to.”
That kind of change has left politicos of all sorts waiting for what happens over the next few months. State Rep. Zach Ista, D-Grand Forks, who represents District 43, is one of them.
"I think all of us are kind of itching to see what it looks like when we can put pen to paper. … Other than that, we can just look at a big map that has plus-4,000, minus-4,000, and it's anybody's guess how we can make those numbers work out,” he said.