Associated Press

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) – North Dakota’s Republican-led House on Tuesday endorsed a new legislative map that creates three new districts in the state’s fastest-growing areas but erases an equal amount in population-lean rural regions.

Representatives voted 73-18 to approve the new map that also separates House districts on two American Indian reservations in the state, a move tribal leaders believe will increase the odds for electing their own members to the Legislature. 

Several GOP House lawmakers argued against the split districts on reservations, saying it was unfair and not needed. Backers said the state faced a federal lawsuit if the split districts were not included in the plan.

The measure now goes to the Senate for consideration, where it is expected to be approved with little opposition.

A North Dakota legislative district now has one senator and two House members, each elected to represent the entire area. In a subdistrict, the senator would still represent the entire district. It would be split in half for House representation, with one House member representing each half.

The split districts are on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation in northern North Dakota and the Fort Berthold reservation, in the heart of the state’s oil patch in the western part of the state and home to the Three Affiliated Tribes.

Turtle Mountain and Three Affiliated were the only tribes of the five that occupy American Indian reservations in the state that had the needed population to qualify under the federal Voting Rights Act for split House districts, which is about 8,450 people at present for each divided district. 

During the Legislature’s redistricting effort in 1991, the Three Affiliated Tribes filed a federal lawsuit seeking to force lawmakers to create subdistricts on the Fort Berthold reservation. A judge dismissed the lawsuit, saying a subdistrict would lack a majority of American Indian voters.

Finley GOP Rep. Bill Devlin, chairman of the committee that drew the new legislative maps, said the split districts were necessary under the Voting Rights Act.

“I’m firmly convinced we have no choice,” Devlin said.

South Dakota already has special subdistricts aimed at giving American Indians a better chance at additional representation in its state Legislature. One of them includes all of the Cheyenne River and part of the Standing Rock Sioux Indian reservations. Another includes the Rosebud Indian Reservation.

The new redistricting plan was required due to population shifts shown by the 2020 federal census, and was drafted over several weeks earlier this year. Each district is supposed to include approximately the same number of people, although small variances are allowed. The principle is called, “one person, one vote,” and is intended to give each district similar voting power in the Legislature.

The new map keeps 47 districts, rather than increasing or reducing the size of the Legislature. Population shifts within North Dakota have made it necessary to redraw the boundaries of most of the existing districts. 

North Dakota’s population is estimated at a record 779,000, up almost 16% during the last decade, but most of the state’s rural legislative districts lost residents, according to census data.

Lawmakers added three new districts in and around the state’s biggest city of Fargo, and Williston and Watford City, where the population has grown with the explosion of oil development in the past decade. The new map eliminates a pair of districts in northeastern North Dakota, and one in the southeastern part of the state.