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Judge finds Voting Rights Act violation in North Dakota redistricting for two tribes

Nov 18, 2023 04:25AM ● By Editor
FILE - The North Dakota House chamber and Capitol tower stand in Bismarck, N.D., on Wednesday, June 14, 2023. A federal judge has ruled that North Dakota's Legislature violated the Voting Rights Act in how lawmakers reapportioned legislative districts comprising two tribal nations. (AP Photo/Jack Dura, File)[ASSOCIATED PRESS/Jack Dura]

By JACK DURA The Associated Press - November 17, 2023

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota’s 2021 legislative redistricting plan violates the rights of two Native American tribes because it dilutes their voting strength, a federal judge ruled Friday.

U.S. District Chief Judge Peter Welte said the redrawn legislative districts violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The ruling came months after a trial held in June in Fargo. The decision could lead to another surprise special session of the Legislature.

In his ruling, Welte said the plan approved by the state Legislature to redraw voting districts in accordance with the latest census data “prevents Native American voters from having an equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice” – a violation of the landmark civil rights law.

Welte gave the Republican-controlled Legislature and the secretary of state until Dec. 22 “to adopt a plan to remedy the violation.”

The Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians and the Spirit Lake Tribe alleged the 2021 redistricting map “simultaneously packs Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians members into one house district, and cracks Spirit Lake Tribe members out of any majority Native house district.”

The two tribes sought a joint district and unsuccessfully proposed to the Legislature a single legislative district encompassing the two reservations, which are roughly 60 miles (97 kilometers) apart.

The tribes submitted a plan in federal court for a joint district that “doesn’t move very many lines statewide,” attorney Tim Purdon told The Associated Press.

“I’m hopeful that the Legislature will take a look at this, adopt the plan proposed by the tribes and stop the litigation, stop the spend of dollars on this litigation,” Purdon said.

The ruling “means that our communities will be able to elect a candidate of their choice, whether that’s a Native or a non-Native candidate,” said Nicole Donaghy, executive director of North Dakota Native Vote, an organization that advocates for civic engagement on reservations.

Spirit Lake Tribal Chairwoman Lonna Jackson-Street said she looks forward to working with state officials “to create a legal and inclusive” map. She said the court ruling “makes huge strides towards our people participating in fair North Dakota elections in 2024 and the future.”

In a statement, Turtle Mountain Tribal Chairman Jamie Azure said the ruling “shows the impact tribal nations can make when they unite to stop the cycle of exclusion and underrepresentation that has for generations prevented too many Native people from voting and from having a say in state-level decision-making.”

Republican House Majority Leader Mike Lefor told the AP that legislative leaders plan to visit with the secretary of state and attorneys to determine their options, such as convening a special session of the Legislature or appealing the judge’s decision.

“It’s going to take us more than a day or two to figure out what our response to it’s going to be,” said Lefor, who served on the 2021 redistricting panel.

North Dakota’s Legislature, which meets every two years, just wrapped up a three-day special session in October to fix a budget mess from a major state government funding bill that the state Supreme Court voided in September. The next regular session isn’t until January 2025.

North Dakota Republican Secretary of State Michael Howe, who is named in the lawsuit, did not immediately comment on the ruling. He said he was still processing documents sent to his office and planned to meet with attorneys on Friday afternoon.

North Dakota has 47 legislative districts, each with one senator and two representatives. Republicans control the House of Representatives 82-12, and the Senate 43-4. At least two lawmakers, both House Democrats, are members of tribes.

A three-judge panel earlier this month dismissed another federal lawsuit that targeted the redistricting, brought by two local Republican Party officials who challenged new House subdistricts comprising tribal nations as unconstitutional “racial gerrymandering.”

The Legislature created four subdistricts in the state House of Representatives, including one each for the Fort Berthold and Turtle Mountain Indian reservations.

Lawmakers who were involved in the 2021 redistricting process have previously cited 2020 census numbers meeting population requirements of the Voting Rights Act for creating those subdistricts.