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A House Divided

North Dakota’s politics haven’t always been a Republican supermajority. There was a time of great political divide — a split of 50 Republicans and 50 Democrats in the House. The 1977 Legislature had the unusual tie after Democrats lost a close race in Minot after a recount. A special committee of five Republicans and five Democrats negotiated compromises during the organizational session for the Legislature. Democrats got the speaker of the House, while Republicans controlled the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

The Senate also saw partisan tension. On this date in 1976, Bismarck Tribune readers learned of the Republican majority in the Senate voting for a rule change stripping the Democratic lieutenant governor’s power to cast tie-breaking votes on all but procedural motions. Lt. Gov. Wayne Sanstead disputed the move and vowed to vote in the event of a tie, which he did on at least one bill.

He petitioned the North Dakota Supreme Court on the issue, but the court split 3-2 against him.
It didn’t end there. Senator Ray Holmberg, Republican of Grand Forks, proposed a resolution for voters to decide if the lieutenant governor should cast deciding votes on Senate ties. Sixty percent of voters affirmed the role of tie-breaker for the Lt. Governor in the 1978 primary.

Political winds also shifted that year. North Dakota Democrats lost the House, but climbed to political power in the mid-1980s. At the Democrats’ peak, they held the Senate, the governor’s seat and the congressional delegation, along with most statewide offices. Republicans made a comeback in 1992 with Gov. Ed Schafer’s election and grew from there.

As for tie votes in the Senate, they don’t happen often, but as recently as 2019, North Dakota’s Senate did deadlock on a bill, and Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford chose not to break the tie.

Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura

Interview, Raymon Holmberg, 2019, November 14.
The Bismarck Tribune. 1976, November 29. Page 2.
The Bismarck Tribune. 1976, December 10. Page 1.
The Bismarck Tribune. 1977, January 3. Page 11.
Argus Leader. 1977, January 13. Page 27.
The Bismarck Tribune. 1977, February 21. Page 1.
The Bismarck Tribune. 1977, February 22. Page 1.
The Bismarck Tribune. 1977, April 2. Page 1.
The Bismarck Tribune. 1978, August 29. Page 2.
The Bismarck Tribune. 1978, November 11. Page 3.

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