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Port: Despite lawsuit, many in tribal communities got exactly what they wanted from redistricting

Partisan operatives like attorney Tim Purdon — a former member of the Democratic National Committee — would like to portray this case as one in which Native American voters were singled out and marginalized. It's just not true.

Tribal offices for Spirit Lake Nation
The Blue Building houses tribal offices for the Spirit Lake Nation in Fort Totten, N.D.
Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
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MINOT, N.D. — Last week a federal judge ruled that a Native American tribe have standing to file suit over North Dakota's recently implemented redistricting map.

"ND tribes win in federal court lawsuit," bellowed a headline from KFYR, though that's more than a bit misleading.

Nobody won anything. At least not yet. A judge just said the suit can go forward, an incremental victory that caused plaintiffs attorney Tim Purdon, who has leveraged an aborted stint as U.S. attorney under President Barack Obama into a career of winning mostly meaningless court victories for tribal clients, to crow about it to the news media.

When you live amid molehills, I guess everything looks like a mountain.

But we are at risk of losing some important context for this lawsuit. Partisan operatives like Purdon — a former member of the Democratic National Committee — would like to portray this case as one in which Native American voters were singled out and marginalized.

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It's just not true.

The opposite is true.

The map North Dakota's Legislature adopted was drawn specifically to enhance the Native American vote.

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Purdon, who represents the Spirit Lake Tribe and the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, is arguing that the state of North Dakota sought to diminish the Native American vote by drawing the boundaries in such a way as to concentrate those voters into particular districts.

“That under-representation hurts tribes, but it also hurts our state," Purdon, working hard to portray this as racism, told KFYR. "Diversity of thought, diversity of background, having tribal members with their diversity of experience in the Legislature makes tribes stronger, but it also makes our state stronger."

Problem is, many in those Native American communities got exactly what they were asking for.

The Legislature created subdistricts in District 4 (the Fort Berthold Reservation) and District 9 (the Turtle Mountain Reservation) specifically designed to elect Native Americans to the Legislature.

This was heralded as a good thing by many tribal leaders.

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Mark Fox, chair of Three Affiliated Tribes of Fort Berthold, which, notably, is not party to this lawsuit, said the plan "gives an opportunity to have stronger and fairer representation at the state legislative level."

“It’s a start for something to be built up on for tribal nations — a more reflective state government. It’s a step in the right direction overall,” said Rep. Ruth Buffalo , a Democrat from Fargo and a member of Fox's tribe.

Ironically, Purdon's clients proposed a last-minute map that was drawn to include both the Turtle Mountain and Spirit Lake reservations in one district. It was an effort to do exactly what Purdon is now denigrating, only in a way more appealing to his clients.

I don't like the redistricting plan. Under the approved plan, those in subdistricts get to vote for only two lawmakers every four years, unlike the rest of the state where voters can cast ballots for three.

That's not equal representation.

As often happens, the government, working to create racial equality, has instead created just a different flavor of inequality.

If only Purdon and his clients were out to fix that mistake.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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