Bill outlines process of legislative redistricting

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — A panel of North Dakota lawmakers will this year begin the job of redrawing the map of legislative districts, a process that is expected to show a continued loss of political clout in rural areas due to population shifts in the past decade.

A bill sponsored by Republican leaders would establish a committee of lawmakers who would craft an outline for legislative redistricting, which is done every 10 years after a federal census. It aims to ensure that each member of the Legislature represents about the same number of people.

A hearing on HB 1397 has not been set but it is expected to meet little resistance from GOP lawmakers because it is sponsored by the party’s power brokers.

The committee would be controlled by Republicans, who hold two-thirds majorities in the state House and Senate, with 40 of the 47 Senate seats and 80 of the House’s 94 seats.

GOP Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner said the panel likely will consist of 16 lawmakers, including two Democrats.

“It’s proportionate to their numbers in the Legislature,” Wardner said of Democrats.

The redistricting plan will be written after the legislative session finishes this spring. Wardner said the panel will host several meetings statewide and finish their work by Nov. 1.

The Legislature would finish the redistricting job during a special or reconvened session this fall. Lawmakers have the option of reconvening later this year or asking the governor to call a special session.

Any new districts would be reflected in the June 2022 primary.

Democrats have a competing bill that would task an independent committee to craft a redistricting plan, but that will win no favor from Republicans who have controlled both chambers — and the crafting of legislative maps — since 1994.

Democratic House Minority Leader Josh Boschee said a party-controlled redistricting plan is unfair.

“You don’t want legislators choosing their voters,” he said

North Dakota has 47 legislative districts, each represented by two House members and a senator.

The state’s estimated population has risen nearly 14% to more than 765,000 since the last census, mainly in urban areas. Final census numbers aren’t expected for months but they likely will show a continued trend in population loss in rural areas, resulting in less representation and influence.

A decade ago, the state’s population grew in the preceding 10 years, but most of North Dakota’s rural legislative districts have been losing residents since then. Lawmakers added new districts in north Bismarck and south Fargo and eliminated districts in rural areas in northeastern and central North Dakota. The changes forced out some GOP incumbents who lost primary races to other Republicans who were moved into their districts by the redistricting plan.

Wardner and Boschee said they expected big population gains in Bismarck and Fargo that could lead to the creation of more districts there but perhaps fewer in rural areas.

North Dakota’s Constitution allows as few as 40 districts and as many as 54.

Rural legislators have argued in the past for adding districts, which would help reduce the pressure for rural districts to grow even larger. North Dakota’s biggest district, District 39, is larger than several states and stretches from near Williston in northwestern North Dakota to the South Dakota border.

Urban lawmakers haven’t shown much support for increasing the size of the Legislature, and many GOP lawmakers have worried voters would interpret it as an unnecessary growth in government.