GOP faces job of redrawing legislative districts

Associated Press

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — When North Dakota Republican lawmakers begin the job of redrawing the state's map of legislative districts, the hardest task for some may be keeping out of each other's territory.

The state's population grew almost 5 percent during the last decade, but most of North Dakota's rural legislative districts continued losing residents, according to federal census data.

That means those districts will have to expand their boundaries to include the required number of people, at a time when federal court rulings have been less tolerant of wide population differences among districts.

When rural legislative districts grow, the chances increase that a new district map will put incumbent lawmakers in the same region, which forces them to oppose each other if they want to keep their seats.

Republicans hold two-thirds majorities in the House and Senate. That boosts the odds that they may run into each other, particularly in northeastern North Dakota where the population in six legislative districts dropped 11 percent in the last decade. Republicans hold 13 of the districts' 18 seats in the Legislature.

"It's always tough if you're talking about eliminating someone's job," said Sen. Raymon Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, who is chairman of an interim legislative committee that will oversee redistricting this summer and fall.

The panel is holding its first meeting Thursday. It must finish its recommendations by Nov. 1, and Holmberg said Wednesday that he expects the 16-member committee will meet every two to three weeks until its job is done.

Thursday's meeting should be brief, Holmberg said, because "there are no (redistricting) plans yet, and we have no training" on how to use special redistricting software that committee members may use to draw proposed maps. The Republican and Democratic groups in the House and Senate each will get a laptop equipped with the software, Holmberg said.

North Dakota now has 47 legislative districts, each of which is represented by a senator and two House members. The North Dakota Constitution says the Legislature may have as few as 40 districts or as many as 54.

Republicans hold two-thirds majorities in both the state House and Senate, with 35 of the 47 Senate seats and 69 of the House's 94 seats.

Once the interim committee finishes its work, a November special session is planned for lawmakers to debate a redistricting plan. Redistricting is normally done after each federal census to give each legislative district roughly equal voting power in the Legislature.

Sen. Ryan Taylor, D-Towner, the Senate's Democratic leader, said the sheer number of Republican seats increases the likelihood of GOP infighting, although Taylor said another point of potential friction is between urban and rural lawmakers.

"I would just like to see (the committee) work on what makes sense for the voters, where we look at neighborhoods and communities and county lines and rural areas where we don't load districts one way or the other, and just let the chips fall where they may," Taylor said.

Some rural legislators may argue for adding districts, which would help lessen the pressure for rural districts to grow even larger. One of North Dakota's southwestern districts, District 39, is larger than six states, including Connecticut and Massachusetts.

However, urban lawmakers have seldom backed increasing the size of the Legislature, and Republican legislators believe many voters would interpret it as an unnecessary growth in government.

Holmberg said northeastern North Dakota will be particularly difficult when it comes to drawing a new map. Six rural districts there have suffered a population decline of 11 percent. The region's largest city, Grand Forks, cannot make up the difference; it barely has enough people to keep the four districts it has.

"When you start drawing the map, you need to start on the edges and work in," Holmberg said. "That causes ugliness when you get into the middle."