Bill on legislative redistricting passes in the House

Dylan Sherman

BISMARCK — Introduced by House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, House Bill 1397 would allow for legislative managers to start the redistricting process for the next decade of state elections.

“We have to start somewhere,” Pollert said when introducing the bill to the House Political Subdivisions committee on Feb. 11. “This is the bill that sets that in motion.”

Redistricting, or reapportionment, is the process by which the Legislature takes new census data every 10 years and redraws legislative district lines, the objective being to ensure equal representation across the state. The process can be controversial, especially if some district lines are drawn in a way to benefit one party – a tool known as gerrymandering.

HB 1397 was passed on the House floor Feb. 23, by a bipartisan vote of 86 to 8. Redistricting, or reapportionment, is the process by which the Legislature takes new census data every 10 years and redraws legislative district lines, the objective being to ensure equal representation across the state. The process can be controversial, especially if some district lines are drawn in a way to benefit one party – a tool known as gerrymandering.

HB 1397 was passed on the House floor Feb. 23, by a bipartisan vote of 86 to 8.

Pollert said the language of the bill is the same as the previous redistricting bill, from 10 years ago, except for the dates being changed.

The redistricting committee would need to finish its work by November, Pollert said, in order to be prepared for 2022 primaries. “You’ll be having district conventions, [endorsements] and having things get ready,” he said.

According to the bill, the planning stage of the redistricting committee would include some documents that would not be public until presented at a public meeting. John Bjornson, executive director of the Legislative Council, said plans are exempt as lawmakers may ask for a draft and realize the plan wouldn’t work.

“All communications with the Legislative Council are not subject to disclosure,” he said. “Once drafts are presented, they are considered public.” Bjornson added that this is done to protect communications when drafting plans or throwing ideas out.

“An integrity review [done by our office] makes sure [plans] cover the entire area, and a bunch of people aren’t left out by accident,” he said. “You can easily leave a block of 100 people out if you aren’t zoomed in close enough to see.”

Until the integrity review is done, Bjornson said the plans are usually not given to the committee.

Planning this year will be tighter as the pandemic has caused some delays, Bjornson said.

“We have been notified that we will receive the [census] redistricting numbers Sept. 30,” he said. “It is going to really put a narrow time frame on the process.”

Bjornson said census data is usually available to the state around March or April, meaning this year it will be up to five months late.

Previous redistricting committees have had 16 members, with the House and Senate each providing eight members. The current bill also would require even representation from the two chambers, but without stipulating a fixed number.

Don Morrison, a volunteer for North Dakota Voters First, testified against the bill in its current form Feb. 11.

“Redrawing the boundaries of legislative districts is one of the most important tasks required to maintain a well-functioning, understandable and representative decision-making process in our state,” he said.

Morrison said the committee must avoid gerrymandered districts.

“The goal of redistricting should be to work as much as possible so we can ensure that everyone's vote matters as much as anyone else's vote,” he said.

Morrison said North Dakota Voters First wanted to provide some amendments to the bill. These amendments included creating a bi-partisan committee and virtual meetings and providing a report on changes.

The House Political Subdivisions Committee did not adopt any of the amendments proposed by North Dakota Voters First.

K. William Boyer is the Managing Editor of the Devils Lake News Journal. He can be reached at kboyer@gannett.com, or by phone at (701) 662-2127.  

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