Coalition advocates subdistricts

Voter groups seek fair legislative redistricting

Submitted Photo A map from legis.nd.gov shows existing legislative district boundary lines in North Dakota. A committee will be drafting a new map based on 2020 population numbers.

A coalition of grassroots voter groups is advocating for subdistricts as the North Dakota Redistricting Committee begins planning for new legislative district maps.

Under a subdistrict plan, each district would have one senator and two representatives, with each representative elected from equally divided segments within the district.

“Benefits of subdistricts are huge and especially relevant now as we anticipate a shift from rural to urban populations. The rural districts are going to get larger,” said Ellen Chaffee, co-chair of BadAss Grandmas for Democracy at a news conference Wednesday.

The conference included the League of Women Voters of North Dakota, North Dakota Voters First and North Dakota Native Vote, along with Katie Fahey, executive director of The People in Michigan state.

Carol Sawicki, chairwoman of North Dakota Voters First and board member for the League of Women Voters, said subdistricts create better representation than simply electing a senator and two representatives at large.

“There is no law preventing all these three people from living within four blocks of each other,” she said.

Contacted by The Minot Daily News, Sen. Randy Burckhard, R-Minot, a member of the redistricting committee, said subdistricts are a concept he would need to learn more about.

“I am certainly open to the discussion of it,” he said. “Large rural districts would say it makes sense.”

Rep. Larry Bellew, R-Minot, also on the redistricting committee, said he cannot support split districts.

“I am not open to it at all,” he said. “It’s not to represent the people better. It’s to elect more Democrats.”

Nicole Donaghy, executive director for North Dakota Native Vote, said at Wednesday’s news conference that subdistricts would provide better representation for reservation residents. Native residents have run for seats at various levels of government without success because of the dilution of the Native population in mapping, she said.

“It’s important for us to build that representation and have the state understand that we also need to be a part of this process,” she said. She added the state has a tribal relations committee that is convening meetings across the state to hear concerns from each of the tribal nations on redistricting. North Dakota Native Vote would like to see redistricting hearings held on every reservation, although it is uncertain at this time whether that might be possible due to COVID-19 concerns, she said.

Unlike 10 years ago in North Dakota, this year’s redistricting bill has a goal to make draft maps that are nearing completion available online to the public before redistricting committee meetings, which voter groups had pushed for.

Fahey said redistricting committee members can face political party pressure to gerrymander maps.

“That’s why it is so important that the public can be a part of this process, that they can say how they would like the representation to look. They can highlight the issues that have been ignored for the last 10 years,” she said. “From a national perspective we are seeing that legislatures are being more responsive.”

Fahey mentioned Virginia, where the Legislature created a redistricting commission that includes nonlegislators, and Wisconsin, which held a mapping contest for the public to submit maps for consideration in the redistricting process.

Fahey said citizens are speaking out on the process when given the chance.

“They’re really concerned about ‘Can we just have a fair process?'” she said. “These are millions of people standing up, making sure their voices are heard. North Dakotans are doing that as well.”

Chaffee said majority party Republicans gained 15 seats in the Legislature 10 years ago after mapping tactics that included dividing West Fargo into four districts, ignoring a two-district option from citizen groups. This year’s redistricting process will be highly accessible through livestreams on the legislative website, she said.

“We think that knowing that people are watching will be a significant benefit in terms of their responsiveness,” Chaffee said.

Redistricting efforts begin today

North Dakota’s legislative redistricting committee will hold its first meeting today in the Roughrider Room of the State Capitol in Bismarck from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

A presentation by Legislative Council staff on 2020 population data and demonstration of mapping software begins at 1 p.m. A public comment period opens at 3 p.m.

The livestream can be found at https://video.legis.nd.gov.

Minot legislators on the 16-member committee are Rep. Larry Bellew and Sen. Randy Burckhard.

The redistricting process will conclude with a special session of the Legislature sometime toward the end of this year.


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