MINOT, N.D. — "North Dakota plan for split districts gives Native Americans 'fairer representation,' advocates say."

So reads a recent headline from a typically thorough article by Michelle Griffith, but I have to admit that I'm struggling with that word.

"Fairer."

Is the redistricting plan, which splits two legislative districts that encompass Native American reservations, really fairer than what we had?

Many of our state's Native American leaders believe so. Because of the way the map was drawn, in the two subdivided districts, one of the subdivisions is drawn so that it has a high percentage of Native American voters.

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“All it does for us is it gives an opportunity to have stronger and fairer representation at the state legislative level,” Mark Fox, chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes of Fort Berthold, told Griffith.

But does it?

Reuters Photo
Newly elected Three Affiliated Tribes council chairman Mark Fox stands at Crow Flies High Butte above the Missouri River on the Fort Berthold Reservation on Nov. 1.
Reuters Photo Newly elected Three Affiliated Tribes council chairman Mark Fox stands at Crow Flies High Butte above the Missouri River on the Fort Berthold Reservation on Nov. 1.

Does packing Native American voters into a subdistrict really give them "stronger and fairer" representation?

“When you’re packed in with larger non-Native communities, it’s harder to get anybody from our own communities elected,” Nicole Donaghy, executive director of North Dakota Native Vote, told Griffith. “We get packed in these districts and our votes and our voices get diluted.”

But the subdistrict plan dilutes Native American voices too, doesn't it? Currently, the Fort Berthold Reservation is in District 4, which is represented by two representatives and one senator, all of whom are elected by the entire district.

Under the subdistrict plan, the people in District 4 only get to vote one senator, and then one of the two representatives, depending on which subdistrict they're in.

District 9, home to the Turtle Mountain Reservation, has also been subdivided.

In both districts, one of the subdistricts has been drawn to encompass the tribal voters.

Isn't that dilution? Sure, the tribal vote is more concentrated in the subdistrict, and not diluted by non-tribal voters, but that comes at the expense of the people in that district losing one elected representative.

Iris Walking Eagle, a field organizer with North Dakota Native Vote, outside the tribal offices and post office in Fort Totten, Spirit Lake Reservation. (Photo by Adam Willis/GroundTruth)
Iris Walking Eagle, a field organizer with North Dakota Native Vote, outside the tribal offices and post office in Fort Totten, Spirit Lake Reservation. (Photo by Adam Willis/GroundTruth)

I'll admit that this entire exercise leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

We shouldn't be drawing political lines to reach specific political outcomes, generally, and creating districts based on race, specifically, feels like exactly the sort of political balkanization we should be trying to avoid.

But even setting those concerns aside, the arguments put forward for the subdistricts don't make any sense on their own merits.

If the problem is vote dilution, why are we trying to solve it with more dilution?

The citizens of North Dakota's two largest Native American communities have been packed into two subdistricts which have the practical effect of diluting their influence over the Legislature from three elected members to two.

I don't think we should feel good about that.

From the perspective of partisan politics, these subdivisions will change nothing. District 4 will likely elect a Democrat in the next cycle. District 9 will likely elect a Republican.

It's a wash.

But from the perspective of fairness? And basic arithmetic?

The plan stinks.

Supporters of the plan say it's what's required of us thanks to the federal Voting Rights Act and the way that law has been interpreted by the courts. They say the plan is fine because the ratio of voters to elected representatives still works out to be equal.

I say hogwash.

Two will never equal three, even if the courts and the lawyers and the politicians have convinced themselves otherwise.

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Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at rport@forumcomm.com.