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Legal wrangling continues over redistricting for North Dakota tribal areas

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Mike Moen

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(Prairie News Service) North Dakota officials said they will appeal a recent federal court ruling requiring the state to rework legislative voting district boundaries for certain tribal areas, as Native American advocates pressure the state to comply with the order.

Last week, a judge said the state violated a federal statute in its redistricting plans by diluting the Native American voting strength for communities along the Spirit Lake and Turtle Mountain Chippewa reservations. A key action was packing the populations into a separate subdistrict.

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Wes Davis, board chairman of North Dakota Native Vote, said one of the areas in question, District 9, did not need any changes.

"We had fair representation across the board, especially with the amount of population that we have in Rolette County," Davis explained. "Adding Spirit Lake into it, it hurt the power of that vote."

Instead, advocates want a full singular district they say would reflect meaningful representation for both tribes, as opposed to a subdistrict.

Despite the judge agreeing with the sentiment, North Dakota's Secretary of State announced yesterday an appeal will be filed based on a separate federal court decision from this week. It said private plaintiffs cannot sue under a key section of the Voting Rights Act. Davis hopes tribal members in the affected areas reach out to state election leaders to share their views.

Even with the court victory ordering new political boundaries, Davis argued Native Americans have to consistently maintain dialogue about their need for fair representation and voting access. 

"Our historical relationship with states is not the best relationship," Davis pointed out. "Having to voice that, along with the translation exhaustion of state governments versus tribal governments, is huge. So, you want to make sure that your voices are heard."

According to the Native American Rights Fund, the 2020 Census showed the number of Native voters in North Dakota grew to nearly 6% of the state's voting-age population. But the organization said the Legislature adopted a district map reducing the number of candidates Native voters could elect in northeastern North Dakota.

Last week's court ruling had given the state until late December to produce new maps. Now, the appeal announcement likely complicates the timeline.