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Panel OKs draft North Dakota legislative redistricting map

September 23, 2021 GMT

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — A panel of lawmakers on Thursday substantially completed a draft of North Dakota’s new legislative map that creates three new districts in the state’s fastest-growing areas but erases an equal amount in population-lean rural regions.

The preliminary plan unanimously approved by the Republican-controlled committee also forces several incumbent lawmakers to run against each other to keep their jobs, including the Democratic Senate minority leader and the GOP House majority leader.

Finley GOP Rep. Bill Devlin, chairman of the committee, said the panel of 14 Republicans and two Democrats will return to the Capitol twice next week to “tweak” the plan and consider dividing up an oil-rich Indian reservation into separate House districts.

The redistricting plan was drafted over the past several weeks. The task was required due to population shifts shown by the 2020 federal census. Each district is supposed to include approximately the same number of people, although small variances are allowed. The principle is called, “one person, one vote,” and is intended to give each district similar voting power in the Legislature.

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The GOP-controlled Legislature will finish the redistricting job during a special or reconvened session this fall. The full Legislature must approve the plan, and the governor must sign off on it.

The new map avoids splitting up the majority of North Dakota’s 53 counties among separate districts. Devlin said one of the redistricting committee’s goals was to keep counties intact when possible.

North Dakota’s population is estimated at a record 779,000, up almost 16% during the last decade, but most of the state’s rural legislative districts continued losing residents, according to census data.

The panel focused on keeping 47 districts, rather than increasing or reducing the size of the Legislature. Each district is represented by two House members and a senator, which gives the Legislature 141 members.

Lawmakers added new three new districts in and around the state’s biggest city of Fargo, and Williston and Watford City in the heart of the state’s oil patch. Cass County, which grew more than 20% in the past decade, would have 11 districts within its borders with the additional legislative district, under the proposed map. Williams County, which contains Williston, saw its population increase 83% to almost 41,000 people in the past decade with the explosion of oil development in the region. Neighboring McKenzie County, which contains Watford City, also would gain a district.

The depopulation of much of rural North Dakota made the work of committee especially difficult in determining where districts would be eliminated. The panel chose to scrub a pair of districts in northeastern North Dakota, and one in the southeastern part of the state.

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The changes mean eight GOP lawmakers and one Democrat are forced out. Joan Heckaman, the Democratic Senate minority leader from New Rockford, would face longtime GOP Sen. Jerry Kline, to represent the new combined district.

Committee chairman Devlin himself was put in the same new northeastern district as House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, along with two other incumbent Republicans.

There appeared to be little public partisan political bickering during the process. The biggest task for the panel, they said, was attempting to strike a balance between urban and rural interests.

Democrats hold about 14% of legislative seats, so proportionately, the redistricting committee is in-line with the Legislature’s makeup.

Rep. Josh Boschee, of Fargo, one of only two Democrats on the panel, said he voted to approve the draft plan because it didn’t smack of partisanship.

“It was everything I’ve been advocating for, and that was that it shouldn’t be political,” Boschee said.

The committee did not take up a proposal Thursday by the Three Affiliated Tribes to create separate House districts on its oil-rich Fort Berthold reservation. Other Dakota tribal leaders appealed to lawmakers last week to split legislative House districts that include reservations, a move they believe will increase the odds for electing American Indians to the Legislature.

“We understand that a split district is no guarantee that a tribal member would be elected,” Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation Tribal Chairman Mark Fox told the redistricting panel. “We are confident, however, that it will increase the representation of our issues and concerns to the legislative body.”

Devlin said the panel would consider the request by the Three Affiliated Tribes next week.

Grand Fork GOP Sen. Ray Holmberg, who has served on redistricting committees since 1981 said he’s open to considering subdistricts for reservations that contain enough population to do so. But only two of the five American Indian reservation in North Dakota — Fort Berthold and Turtle Mountain — have the needed population to split House districts at present.

Holmberg said the Three Affiliated Tribes’ Fort Berthold reservation very likely will get a split House district.

“Either we do it, or the courts will make us do it,” he said.