JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Election Reform

So we won’t be voting on Measure 3 in November. Because there is no Measure 3. The North Dakota Supreme Court says so. And it, not Al Jaeger, gets the final say.

I’m actually a little disappointed. I told a few friends this past week I was going to hold my nose and vote for it because there some things in it I liked and some things I didn’t. I figured if it passed, we could fix the bad things later. But we should take the good things now. In other words, don’t make perfect the enemy of the good.

The real reason I’m sorry the Supreme Court ruled as it did is that I was looking forward to the most interesting campaign of the year, between two political heavyweights, Ellen Chaffee and Pat Finken — Chaffee for the measure, Finken against it. They were already slugging it out in the past two weeks with letters to the editor, TV ads, Facebook slugfests and talk on the street. Heck, Finken’s Facebook group already had more than 16,000 members. And both would have had big money to sell their wares.

Well, guess what. They get to send the money back. What’s not already spent.

Mostly I feel bad because Chaffee’s group — she, the founder of the Badass Grandmas who passed the Ethics Commission measure last election, although she was not the public face of this year’s measure — was really well-intentioned. They sought a way to bring more fairness to North Dakota elections and to try to get rid, at least temporarily, of one-party government in North Dakota.

But they took too big a bite, angered those who built that one-party government here and, in a totally unexpected move, lost their election 5-0 in the North Dakota Supreme Court in August instead of in a decision by a third of a million North Dakota voters on the ballot in November.

In January, before the proponents of Measure 3 offered up their petitions to Al Jaeger for approval, I put forward my own election reform package. I shared it with the Measure 3 people. They didn’t like it. They went their own way. Now there will be no election reform measure on the ballot this year. Dang.

I’m going to throw mine back out there. It’s too late for this year, but maybe the 2021 Legislature would consider it — yeah, right — or we could begin talking about what to do in 2022. There is absolutely no question in my mind that we need election reform in North Dakota. Here are my six ideas.


Change the size of the Legislature. Shrink it from 47 districts to 40, essentially remaking the Legislature from scratch. A 40-district reapportionment plan would be drawn up to make sense, with county Iines 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 10 years.

I know, I know, you say some of the districts are already too large geographically 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, even in hard times in the Oil Patch.

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, the  population of which 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. 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.


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, they’re in “The People’s Chamber,” much closer to their constituents.

Measure 3 actually included this, and 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 right now couldn’t name, all three of their legislators 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 8,500 residents might make that possible.


Reinstate 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.


Create an Independent, Nonpartisan Reapportionment Commission. 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 UND 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 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.


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’s $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.


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 guess the idea was to allow the political parties time to heal up after the primary, but it was a mistake. Politicians are big boys and girls, and they can heal fast enough in two months. The June primary, in my opinion, made the election campaign season way too long. 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.


Well, those are my ideas for election reform. I think they make more sense than those in Measure 3. A couple of them would require a change in the constitution, but some could be enacted as statutory measures. I hate changing the constitution. The constitution changes I’d propose would just take us back to our original 1889 constitution.

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.

One thought on “JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Election Reform”

  • Larry Heilmann August 26, 2020 at 1:15 pm

    I agree fully with the first five of your proposals. I don’t like the last on the chance of a really close election and a lengthy recount. I believe that was the reason for the 1980 change. A near tie in the 1970 primary and a long bitter recount cost the republicans a US House seat. That of course cannot be allowed.
    Measure 3 was too long and confusing. Several very different and unrelated proposals all in one bundle. All or nothing. I was planning on voting no because the bad out weighed the good. If they try again I would make it three or four separate measures most of which would pass easily because they would not be chained to a couple of crazy controversial measures. Each measure should be a single issue and as simple as possible.


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