BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — The clock is running out on a Friday deadline for North Dakota’s Republican-controlled Legislature to draw new legislative boundaries compliant with the Voting Rights Act for two Native American tribes who successfully sued for new lines.
It’s unclear what will happen next, with the 2024 election calendar looming and a flurry of legal filings in recent days.
A federal judge last month ruled that the state’s 2021 redistricting map violates the landmark 1965 civil rights law in diluting the strength of Native American voters. He gave the secretary of state and lawmakers five weeks, ending Friday, “to adopt a plan to remedy the violation.”
Secretary of State Michael Howe is appealing the decision. The Legislature’s Redistricting Committee began meeting this month to address the ruling and review options of maps. Requests to delay the ruling or extend the deadline have so far been unsuccessful.
WHAT IS THE CASE?
The Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, the Spirit Lake Tribe and several tribal members sued North Dakota’s top election official last year. They 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 tribes had unsuccessfully sought a joint district in 2021. Their reservations are about 60 miles (96.56 kilometers) apart. Their lawsuit went to trial in June.
In November, U.S. District Court Chief Judge Peter Welte ruled that the map “prevents Native American voters from having an equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice,” a violation of the Voting Rights Act.
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT?
Howe announced plans to appeal days after the ruling. He cited a new 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that private individuals and groups such as the NAACP can’t sue under a critical section of the Voting Rights Act.
Welte and the 8th Circuit denied his requests to delay the ruling pending appeal. On Wednesday, the 8th Circuit denied the Legislature’s request to extend the Dec. 22 deadline to Feb. 9, 2024.
On Thursday, the Legislature asked Welte for the same extension, saying it “has made substantial headway toward the development of a remedial redistricting plan.”
In an 8th Circuit filing, Howe said an extension “into February and March risks introducing significant confusion, hardship, and unfairness into the State’s 2024 elections.”
“Certainty is absolutely everything our office is looking for. It doesn’t matter to us what the map looks like, and that’s not our role. That’s the Legislature’s prerogative and their constitutional duty to set laws and create maps, not the secretary of state’s office,” Howe said.
Republican House Majority Leader Mike Lefor said the Legislature is “going to continue to fight on all fronts, legally, to make sure that our voice is heard.” He maintains the 2021 redistricting process was correct.
The Legislature’s redistricting panel has met twice and reviewed maps, including two presented by the tribes in court and others that individual lawmakers presented Wednesday.
Republican state Sen. Ron Sorvaag, who chairs the committee, said his goal is to have the panel prepared “so when it’s called upon, if there’s a session, we’re ready to present.”
Turtle Mountain and Spirit Lake tribal chairs on Wednesday urged lawmakers “to finally follow the law and adopt one of the Tribes’ proposed maps, drop its appeal, and end this costly litigation.”
WHAT HAPPENS AFTER FRIDAY?
It’s unclear what the judge will do when the Friday deadline passes with no new map in place. The Legislature has no plans to convene.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Tim Purdon said the tribes plan to file before the deadline “to suggest a path forward for the court.”
In his order rejecting Howe’s requested delay of his decision, Welte wrote that “the public interest lies in correcting Section 2 violations, particularly when those violations are proven by evidence and data at trial. Concerns as to the logistics of preparing for an election cycle cannot trump violations of federal law and individual voting rights.”
Jack Dura, The Associated Press