Two opposing plans drafted by lawmakers look to answer that question in anticipation of a process that only comes around once a decade.
Since the last redistricting session in 2011, North Dakota’s population has grown with a stream of oil workers flowing into the western part of the state, but the timing of last year’s federal census has put some of these gains in question. Meanwhile, the state’s rural-urban divide has very likely widened, according to demographers.
Republican legislative leaders have proposed House Bill 1397, which would assign a committee of lawmakers to drawing new districts later this year. Each district must have roughly the same population, but having the power to engineer the map is often seen as a political advantage.
North Dakota’s current legislative districts were crafted using figures from the 2010 U.S. Census. Screenshot via North Dakota Legislature
Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner said the committee will likely include 16 or 18 lawmakers, with mostly Republicans and two or three Democrats — a reflection of the partisan breakdown in the Legislature. The Dickinson Republican said he believes lawmakers will exercise fair judgment in drafting the electoral map.
“I’m sure there are those saying, ‘Now the Republicans can run roughshod,'” Wardner said. “I’d like to think we have a little more integrity than that. I’d like to think that we’re going to draw the lines straight and not do a bunch of gerrymandering.”
House Minority Leader Josh Boschee isn’t convinced by Wardner’s assurance. The Fargo Democrat said Republicans previously gerrymandered districts — drawing lines to benefit themselves politically — and lawmakers shouldn’t be able to influence how the map looks.
That’s why Boschee and other Democrats brought forth their own proposal for redistricting that would assign an independent, nonpartisan commission to the task.
“Independent redistricting takes away the ability for legislators to pick their voters and allows an independent party, hopefully in a completely unbiased way, to draw the lines,” Boschee said.
North Dakota Rep. Josh Boschee, D-Fargo, gives speech in West Fargo while running for secretary of state in 2018. David Samson / Forum News Service
Republicans hold a strong supermajority in both chambers of the Legislature, making it far more likely that the GOP proposal will win out. To approve the final redistricting plan, lawmakers will have to either call themselves into session or ask the governor to do so for them.
The redistricting process will likely take place between July and October of this year after the U.S. Census Bureau releases data from last year’s headcount. Politicians on both sides of the aisle are eager to see which parts of the state gained or lost population and how it could affect the electoral map.
Wardner and Boschee said they expect to see the state’s rural-to-urban trend continue as cities like Fargo and Bismarck grow. Meanwhile, the lawmakers anticipate more population loss from small farming communities in the center and northeast parts of the state.
As Boschee noted, that means “rural North Dakota will get less voices, and those of us in larger communities will get more voices.”
However, a question mark overlies the once-lightly-populated western edge of the state where the oil industry attracted thousands of workers since the last census in 2010. Places like Watford City and Williston surely expanded, but last spring’s downturn in oil prices coincided with the beginning of the census, and some workers may have already skipped town before the survey arrived in their mailbox.
“The timing could not be worse,” said state census office manager Kyle Iverson. “You could not have made up a movie to be more dramatic than what happened with the pandemic and the drop in oil prices”
Iverson said it’s impossible to say at this point whether an Oil Patch exodus occurred before the census’ population snapshot, but the effects on federal funding and the electoral map could be significant if the region hemorrhaged people in spring.
Each resident counted in the census equates to more than $20,000 in federal funding over the course of a decade, Iverson said. If oil-producing areas lost population right before the survey, it could mean the remaining residents get less representation in the Legislature.
Cities with major universities like Fargo and Grand Forks could also face some undercounting, Iverson said. The pandemic forced most spring classes online, and many students left campus to live at home. Iverson noted colleges and universities provided dorm records to the Census Bureau, and many off-campus residents were counted through their lease records. However, there could be thousands of people living in off-campus housing that didn’t appear on any official documents, Iverson said.
Even so, North Dakota’s population has certainly risen since 2010 when the census found nearly 673,000 people lived in the state. Wardner said there’s appetite among lawmakers to add to the 47 legislative districts on the current electoral map. He said this could allow for tighter rural districts, which often span well over 50 miles from one end to the other.