Mike Jacobs: Redistricting has political implications in North Dakota

An unanswered question is how many incumbent legislators will be thrown together. Here’s where it gets interesting.

Mike Jacobs, Grand Forks Herald columnist.

The legislative committee redrawing North Dakota’s electoral map has some tweaking to do, but the new map is nearly complete, and its implications are becoming clear.

Of course, reapportionment is a nerd’s nirvana, involving numbers – sometimes very small numbers – and acreage, also sometimes very small. It does matter, however. The new map will determine legislative district lines for the next decade, until another federal census is complete.

Overall, the changes from the previous apportionment, agreed to in 2011, are small. Committee members showed little enthusiasm for changing the number of districts, and that will remain at 47. The state constitution allows from 40 to 54 districts.

County lines will remain intact, for the most part. By my count, at least 31 of the state’s 53 counties are kept whole. This was a key goal of the committee. There’s an important caveat here. A second key goal was to protect native communities, and some counties – counted here as whole – lost Indian lands to other districts.

The committee has yet to resolve another important question: whether to create subdistricts for reservation communities. The committee will address this when it meets this week, after the deadline for this column.


The consensus appears to be creating two subdistricts, one that closely aligns with the Fort Berthold reservation in northwestern North Dakota, and one that includes the bulk of population at the Turtle Mountain Reservation in the north-central part of the state.

Another unanswered question is how many incumbent legislators will be thrown together. Here’s where it gets interesting.

One of the incumbents is Joan Heckaman of New Rockford, who is the Democratic leader in the state Senate. Don’t shout gerrymandering too loudly just yet. Two Republican House members in that district are in the same situation, Rep. Don Vigesaa of Cooperstown, and Rep. Bill Devlin of Finley. Vigesaa is a former assistant leader of House Republicans; Devlin chairs the reapportionment committee.

Most of rural Grand Forks County will be merged with Traill County, enlarging existing District 20, which will have six incumbents, three from each county.

But the most interesting is the fate of Rep. Jeff Delzer of Underwood, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee. Delzer was the target of a vigorous campaign funded by Gov. Doug Burgum. The two clashed about fiscal policy, and Delzer lost to Burgum’s candidate in last year’s Republican primary. The winner died before the election, though he still came in second. The district committee appointed Delzer to his old seat.

This year’s apportionment divides Delzer’s old district among three districts. The western portion, where Delzer lives, joins a district directly across the Missouri River. The district will include most of North Dakota’s Coal Country. Another part of Delzer’s district has been attached to Burleigh and Emmons counties and includes the city of Lincoln, a fast-growing suburb of Bismarck. The inclusion of Emmons County puts Rep. Jeff Magrum of Hazelton in the district. He is one of the stalwart members of the so-called “Bastiat Caucus,” a group of right-leaning members of the North Dakota House.

At least three other caucus members face the same situation. Sen. Jason Heitkamp of Wahpeton and Rep. Kathy Skroch of Lidgerwood live in Richland County, which forms a district of its own in the new apportionment. Sen. Larry Luick lives in Richland County, too, and that creates a potential face-off between Republican senators representing different factions of the party as well as a contest between incumbent members of the House.

Rep. Sebastian Ertelt, also a dependable Bastiat Caucus member, ends up in a district including Valley City, which has elected caucus members, including one who is the subject of a recall election mounted by the district Republican committee.


Another unresolved issue is what threshold of population change will trigger an automatic election. Normally odd-numbered districts hold elections in off-presidential years. The threshold was 25% in the last reapportionment outing; there’s sentiment on the committee to lower it to 20% as well as to raise it to 30 or even more – a move that might trigger legal challenge. Sen. Heckaman would benefit from the lower number, because she’s moving from an odd to an even-numbered district under the plan on the table. At least she’d get to stand for reelection, though the new part of the district is heavily Republican and the incumbent senator there is firmly entrenched.

Then there’s the renumbering. Here the interesting wrinkle is the state’s northeastern most district, which had been District 10. The proposal is to give it the Number 19, taken from the Grand Forks County district that has disappeared. That would mean Sen. Janne Myrdal, the Legislature’s most fervent anti-abortion member, would face reelection next year. It also means she would get a four-year term.

The committee largely met its goal of “compact and contiguous” districts. The sprawling southwestern-most district has changed shape, from an elongated rectangle encompassing five counties and 8,000 square miles, to a kind of Sponge Bob-like square with tentacles extending north and south of the city of Dickinson. It encompasses five full counties and parts of three others, and it’s larger than its predecessor, the size of Massachusetts -- but driving distance from one corner to the other is reduced …a little.

Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.

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