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There’s skulduggery in legislative redistricting

By Staff | Jul 8, 2011

For most citizens, redividing the state into districts for the purpose of electing legislators is a boring subject that seems to have little relevance to daily life. However, it is one of those important civic activities that defines the quality of democracy in North Dakota.

If no one else is interested, the members of the Legislature certainly are because their seats are directly affected by the manner in which the state is divided into districts. While the population of the state has remained virtually the same as it was in 2000, there has been considerable change within the state. The cities have grown and the rural areas have lost population, meaning that rural districts will once again lose representation. The rural areas have a particular stake in redistricting this year.

Redistricting is political dynamite. Legislators are so sensitive to redistricting that we have already heard complaints about political maneuvering to control the process. Legislative Democrats who were promised the right to name their representatives on the 16-member reapportionment committee have accused House Majority Leader Al Carlson of lying to them when he changed his mind and limited their choices.

This sort of behavior is accepted across the country as Republican and Democratic legislators use their political muscle to divide the spoils. Even when a majority party has over two-thirds of the seats, as the Republicans have in North Dakota, it will try to draw the district boundaries to come up with a couple more seats. It’s similar to a hockey game when the home town is leading by 10-to-1 and the fans are still screaming for one more goal.

To throttle these legislative abuses of power, states have tried all sorts of methods to neutralize partisan abuse of power. Few states have found a method to make reapportionment less partisan and more fair. Consequently, a large majority of states continue to use the worst method of all redistricting by the legislature itself.

The 1972 constitutional convention dealt with this subject by proposing that a panel of district judges do the redistricting. By the nature of their work, judges treasure neutrality and fairness more than does a legislative committee shot through with self-interest. That proposal died with the constitution.

The 16-member committee now working on reapportionment was formed under House Bill 1267 which provided for appointment of the membership by the chair of the Legislative Management Committee. The committee is to come up with a plan by October 31.

For all practical purposes, citizens will have very little input in the redistricting process. Under HB 1267, plans developed by the committee are exempt from the open records provisions in 44-04-17.1 of the North Dakota Century Code until distributed. Citizens will have little time to study plans and make counterproposals. They will be limited to complaining. Rural areas especially should be concerned.

Even when developed in full public view, reapportionment plans are rife with political scheming and chicanery. In drawing new boundaries, the usual priorities are as follows: (1) save your own seat; (2) save the seats of your favorite fellow party members; (3) save the seats of the rest of your party; (4) reduce the number of seats held by the opposite party, and (5) settle old scores.

The Legislature should not be in charge of redistricting in any state. If it discovered such a conflict of interest in the executive branch, it would be holding hearings and impeaching officials. This conflict of interest drives legislators often to represent themselves more than the people. To use an old adage, it’s akin to putting the fox in charge of the henhouse.

Lloyd Omdahl is a UND professor emeritus in political science and a former lieutenant governor of North Dakota.

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