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Tribes and candidates react to North Dakota's new state House subdistricts

Official map of North Dakota's newly drawn House districts.

The new districts, which cover two North Dakota Indian reservations, have elicited varying responses from local politicians.

The North Dakota House of Representatives elections this November will be taking place with new legislative districts, redrawn to reflect population changes since the last census. Typically, each district elects two representatives to go to Bismarck. But in an unprecedented move, districts 4 and 9 have been split into two subdistricts each, which will all elect one representative.

Districts 4 and 9 span the Fort Berthold Reservation and the Turtle Mountain Reservation, whose residents are now concentrated in subdistricts 4A and 9A, while 4B and 9B cover the districts' non-Native populations. The new boundaries are meant to help tribal members elect their chosen representatives to the North Dakota House, instead of being outvoted by their non-Native neighbors.

Lisa Finley-DeVille, a member of the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Berthold Reservation, is running for the House in subdistrict 4A. She welcomes the new legislative map.

"This is a monumental moment in North Dakota's history, to have a subdistrict that gives [Native American] electors the ability to elect a candidate of their own choice. It's important because Native people are often left out of the decision-making process that affects our land, air, and water every day."

However, the new subdistricts have not been without controversy. The redistricting committee used the federal Voting Rights Act benchmark of 8,450 residents for creating subdistricts. But the number isn't binding, so the chairmen of the Standing Rock and Spirit Lake reservations have criticized the committee for leaving their nations out.

Meanwhile, the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa has filed a lawsuit against the state. Before subdistricts, this tribe was already populous enough to elect friendly legislators to both House spots. But now, tribal members are concentrated in the 9A subdistrict, leaving 9B up for grabs and potentially reducing the Turtle Mountain Band's voting power. The lawsuit takes aim at this "packing and cracking," as it's called in politics.

It also faults the redistricting committee in passing over a joint proposal by the Turtle Mountain Band and the nearby Spirit Lake Tribe to create a new full district encompassing both reservations instead.

Marvin Nelson, a candidate for House in subdistrict 9B, does not understand the committee's rejection of the proposed double-reservation district.

"It made no sense to me when the tribes came with a plan that worked, and this is what they're asking for. And this tribe here, to be clear, never asked for subdistricts."

Earlier this summer, a federal judge denied the State of North Dakota's request to dismiss the lawsuit, but the parties don't expect a resolution until after this year's election cycle, leaving Native American voters with both the opportunities and the complications of the new subdistricts for now.

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