In his regular Tuesday morning column in the Grand Forks Herald this week, Mike Jacobs wrote, “This is the last day of a year that’s made just about everybody uneasy about the state of our politics. To use a flood analogy, it seems as if the waters have divided and are rushing down parallel ditches. And there’s nobody on the high ground in the middle of the road. It might be that the crisis is less urgent in North Dakota, but it’s not absent.”
Mike then went on to suggest several things we could do to reform North Dakota’s electoral system, chief among them, changing the size of the Legislature.
This is something that comes up every 10 years as we face drawing new legislative district lines after the decennial census.
North Dakota has 49 legislative districts, but that hasn’t always been the case. In the past, we’ve had as few as 39 and as many as 53. Generally, deciding how many and where the lines will be drawn, a task we call “reapportionment,” is a job left to the Legislature, but over the years, we’ve had lawsuits, we’ve had plans drawn up by the Supreme Court and even a plan drawn up by a newspaper editor.
Mike’s suggestion (he is a former newspaper editor, but not the one who drew up a reapportionment plan — that was Minot Daily News editor Dick Dobson, who’s still around by the way, living in the North Dakota Veterans Home in Lisbon, N.D.) is to increase the size of the Legislature to 54 districts. That’s the maximum number allowed by the North Dakota Constitution. Coincidentally(?), I think that there are just 54 chairs available in the Senate chamber and 108 chairs available in the House chamber.
Mike makes a pretty good case for increasing the size of the Legislature to 54 senators and 108 representatives, mostly based on the geographic size of rural legislative districts (although he also pulled a “homer,” noting that because population growth in Grand Forks hasn’t kept pace with the rest of the state during the oil boom, it is in danger of losing a district when reapportionment happens in the next couple of years).
I’ve been giving this idea of election reform some thought over the past few months as well. Mike’s column Tuesday prompted me to drag some notes out of my computer that I had written down last fall.
I sent a note to my old friend, Tom Dickson, a fellow political junkie, but one with a day job that doesn’t offer as much free time as I have in retirement to flesh out the schemes we come up with over an occasional glass of wine or two, that started, “I’ve been thinking about some things we could do to make elections better, create more interest among the public and result in better government. The one-party rule we have in North Dakota isn’t a good thing. We need more diversity in our legislative chambers and our state Capitol.”
OK, it’s no secret Tom and I are Democrats and would like to see more Democrats elected. But I’m not just being selfish there. I really believe we’d get better government if we had two parties represented at the Capitol. I’d be saying the same thing if my party the held all the offices there. Well, maybe.
And like Mike, I’d like to see more people get involved in politics. More good people. Some people on the high ground, in the center of the road.
So what the heck, to start out the New Year, I’ll share these notes with you too, and see if anyone besides Tom and Mike and me is interested in making 2020 the year of North Dakota election reform. Here are my notes.
Note 1. Yes, change the size of the Legislature, but instead of increasing it, shrink it from 47 districts to 40, essentially, as Mike suggests, remaking the Legislature from scratch. Tom and I have been talking about this for years, but it’s only been talk, no action. Maybe it’s time for some action.
A 40-district reapportionment plan would be drawn up to make sense, with county lines and straight lines forming the boundaries in most districts, getting rid of the odd-looking gerrymandered district lines we now have that wiggle all over the place, protecting incumbent lawmakers every ten years.
I know, I know, you say some of the districts are too large, geographically already and eliminating seven of them would make them REALLY big. Yes and no. You see, the biggest districts are the ones in the west, and those are the districts where the population has really grown because of the Bakken Boom, so it’s not likely we’d make any of those districts bigger. In fact, we’d be making them smaller because there are way more people packed into them now.
Here’s just one example: District 39, the state’s largest district, geographically. Right now, District 39 contains six complete counties — Adams, Billings, Bowman, Golden Valley, Slope and McKenzie — and a corner of Dunn County. The district stretches from Williston to the South Dakota line, nearly 150 miles from north to south. A 40-district plan would make McKenzie County, whose population has swelled to nearly 20,000, its own legislative district, shrinking the current District 39 by some 60 miles. Adding Hettinger County to Adams, Slope, Billings, Bowman and Golden Valley would create a much more compact district, although still probably the biggest in the state.
That’s just one example. There are more. The other districts in the northwest corner of the state, Districts 1, 2 and 4, would also become more compact than they are now. Yes, some districts in the east, which have not increased in population, would get a bit bigger, but not nearly as big as those out west have been. (And yes, Grand Forks would probably lose a senator and two representatives.) But generally, the argument that shrinking the Legislature from 47 to 40 districts creates really huge districts doesn’t hold much water.
We’ll have to wait for the outcome of the 2020 census to make actual determinations, but it looks like we’ll be around 760,000 residents, which means about 19,000 people per district. Right now we’re at 14,400. So legislators would be representing about 4,600 more people. But wait, here’s Part 2.
Note 2. Create House subdistricts, so while each senator would represent 19,000 people, each House member would represent only 9,500 people, which is about 5,000 FEWER than they do how. This actually brings the House members, who like to brag, like Earl Strinden and Dick Backes used to do in the old days, that they’re in “The People’s Chamber,” much closer to their constituents.
Other states with large geographic districts, including Minnesota, have done this, to bring legislators closer to their constituents. So while we’d have 40 Senate districts, we’d have 80 House subdistricts. By doing that, some of those folks who live out west might actually KNOW their House members. I guarantee you a majority of them don’t know and couldn’t name all three of their Legislators right now in many of our districts.
The biggest beneficiary of this idea might be Native Americans living on the state’s three largest reservations. Right now, there is only one Native American legislator elected from the state’s reservations — Sen. Richard Marcellais from District 9, home to the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. I’ve been following North Dakota politics for a long time, and I can’t remember a single Native American being elected to the Legislature from The Standing Rock, Fort Berthold or Spirit Lake Reservations. House subdistricts with 9,500 residents might make that possible.
Note 3. Mike pointed out the waning interest, not only in elections but in political involvement because of the way we elect legislators and state officials, staggering elections between presidential election years and off-years. I’d like to suggest that one way we could pique more interest is by reinstating two-year terms for House members. Prior to 1997, all North Dakota House members were elected every two years, the same as members of the U. S. House of Representatives. North Dakota voters approved a constitutional change in the 1996 General Election to give House Members four-year terms, with half of them being elected in each biennial election. That was a mistake, in my opinion.
Members of the U.S. Congress have to come home and face the voters at the end of each two-year session of Congress, to justify what they did during their term. So should legislators. It makes some sense for senators to serve longer terms — as in the federal government, the theory is that it provides some consistency and helps avoid chaos every two years. I’ll buy it, but we should change House members back to two year terms in North Dakota.
Note 4. Create an Independent, Nonpartisan Reapportionment Commission. Mike suggested this, too. No matter which party is in charge at the turn of the decade, it would be a good idea to take the responsibility for drawing legislative district lines away from the partisans — the members of the Legislature. Gerrymandering is becoming a national issue as we approach the 2020 census. As someone wrote recently (I can’t remember who), “Voters should pick their legislators, not the other way around.” It’s true. Allowing the Legislature to reapportion after a census is letting Legislators choose their voters.
North Dakota is not immune. Just look around at some of the goofy lines the Republican majority drew in 2011 to protect their incumbent legislators. I’m suggesting we put some nonpartisans in charge. I’d suggest a five-member Independent commission composed of the chief justice of the North Dakota Supreme Court (or his/her designee), the presidents of the University of North Dakota and North Dakota State University (or their designees — professors who would actually draw up the plan), and, throwing a bone to the Legislature, the speaker of the House and the president of the Senate (noting that the president of the Senate is actually the lieutenant governor, so we’d have all three branches of government involved here).
In the recent past, the Legislature, meeting after the conclusion of the census, has appointed a special committee to draw up a plan and present it for approval at a special session of the Legislature in November. Then it takes effect for the next election. I’m suggesting the independent commission could draw up a plan following county lines and using straight lines in cities instead of wandering all over the place to protect incumbents, and the Legislature could approve it in November, in time for the next election. The commission doesn’t even need to know where current legislators live. Incumbents be damned. Draw a plan that make sense, no matter who lives where.
Note 5. We need to limit the influence of money in elections, so we should set campaign contribution limits for legislators and constitutional officers, just like we do for members of Congress. Congress put a limit on how much its members could receive from individual donors in 2002 of $2,000, and indexed it for inflation. In 2020, it will be $2,800. What’s wrong with doing that in North Dakota? Have there been abuses here? Well, yeah, in 2012, Jack Dalrymple got a lot of $10,000 checks en route to a total of more than $600,000 from the oil industry. Big Oil essentially bought Jack four years in office, and he rewarded them handsomely with lax regulation. I don’t know what the limits should be, but $10,000 checks should not be allowed, in statewide and legislative races.
Note 6. I’d like to move the state’s primary election back to September. For much of North Dakota’s history, we held our primary election in September, but in 1980, we voted to move it to June. I don’t remember the logic for that, but it was a mistake. It made the election campaign season three months longer. We should shorten it up like it used to be, with a primary election the first Tuesday of September, just two months before the general election. Campaigns are too long. Let’s shorten them up.
Conclusion. Well, those are my ideas for election reform. It seems to me that cutting government (40 districts), a shorter campaign season (September primary), better local representation (House subdistricts), getting big money out of government (contribution limits), making House members more answerable to their constituents (two-year terms) and taking politics out of legislative reapportionment (an independent commission) might just result in better government in North Dakota.
I don’t know how we go about getting that done, but we should.