It is time we addressed gerrymandering of political districts. Over the weekend, the Washington Post published an article describing how this practice is negatively impacting our democracy. I encourage you to take a moment and read it. Before I get into what has happened in North Dakota under Republican control, I want to assure you this isn’t a single party issue. Both Republican and Democratic parties utilize gerrymandering in their favor when they’re in control of the process. We must end it.
In North Dakota after the 2010 Census, the Legislature was tasked with drawing new district lines. While Legislators were debating the new district map, House Majority Leader Al Calson had this blatantly partisan to say:
This is a Republican plan for the next 10 years. Those new districts should be Republican, and I believe they’re very Republican. There should be six new Republican members (of the Legislature) as we go into the next election cycle. -Rep. Al Carlson (2011)
Did you count how many times he was able to squeeze the word “Republican” in there? Well, Carlson was wrong in that assessment. One of those “new districts” he referenced was District 16. Ben Hanson and I took four years out of the ten he declared would be in Republican control. Yes, it is a point of pride. But the comment underscores just how political the drawing of district lines is in its current form. That is the problem.
I’m sure some will say, if I won my race after the new lines were drawn there must not be a problem with the current system. I disagree especially if the intent was to capture partisan leanings for one party. Carlson clearly states that was their intent. Though I do not attribute my defeat four years later to the district lines, they swept our district.
It wasn’t just District 16 that was drawn with partisan intentions. District 7, the other “new district” Carlson references, was removed from North Central ND and placed in Bismarck. Part of their intent was to remove former Senator Ryan Taylor’s seat and make him run against another Democratic-NPL Senator. Taylor chose not to run. In District 22, they pulled in part of West Fargo because Republican Rep. Wes Belter moved there and they didn’t want to lose his seat. In District 25, they put in part of southern Cass County and cut out certain townships. This helped Senator Larry Luick maintain a small victory over Perry Miller in 2014 and kept another potential challenger out of the race because they were drawn out of the district.
This isn’t partisan whining either. I hope states that are controlled by Democrats move in this same direction. Some will claim the shifting of district lines wouldn’t make a difference in such a “red state.” Perhaps they’re right at this moment in our history. However, I just laid out a couple of examples showing the current process is being used to advance political strongholds here in North Dakota. I’m sure if you dig further, you can find even more examples. That is not right regardless of what party is responsible.
In an attempt to get the conversation started of removing partisan politics from redistricting, Senator Joan Heckaman introduced SCR 4009. The resolution would ask legislative management to consider studying the formation of an independent, non-partisan redistricting commission. Nothing would have been mandated if the resolution passed. The bill was heard by the Senate Government and Veterans Affairs Committee. During the hearing, there was not a single person or group who testified in opposition. It didn’t matter to the majority on the committee; they recommended a “Do Not Pass” on a party line vote. Today it was defeated by the Senate on a voice vote. To members in the majority, we can’t even think about studying a non-partisan redistricting commission.
Polling has suggested the average American, Democrats, Republicans, and Independents favor removing partisan politics from the district drawing process. If that holds true in North Dakota, perhaps it is time to start getting the petitions circulated for an initiated measure. If the measure were to pass in 2018, it would allow plenty of time to implement the independent commission before the redistricting after the 2020 census. Other states, both red and blue, have begun to move in this direction. Courts have upheld the independent commissions. I believe it is time to take politics out of the map-making process. In the end it may moderate our politics and get people working together again.