A federal judge has imposed new legislative districts in North Dakota after Republican lawmakers refused to comply with an order to fix maps that the court previously found had discriminated against Native American voters.
On Monday, U.S. District Judge Peter Welte selected a map that Native voters had proposed, which would unite two Indian reservations in a single district. If the decision survives a pending Republican appeal, the new maps would likely see two Native Democrats replace a pair of white Republicans, one each in the state Senate and the state House.
In November, Welte struck down the 9th and 15th Legislative Districts for violating the Voting Rights Act by diluting the power of Native votes to elect their preferred candidates. After these new maps were used in 2022, Republican Kent Weston won the 9th District by a 54-46 margin last year, defeating longtime Democratic state Sen. Richard Marcellais, who is a former chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. Marcellais' loss left the Senate without any Native members for the first time since 1991.
Native tribes who brought the lawsuit charged that lawmakers had improperly split up two reservations, Turtle Mountain and Spirit Lake, between two districts. As a result, Native voters were unable to elect their preferred candidates—almost certainly Native Democrats—in either district. Instead, both supported white Republicans like Weston.
The 9th also failed to perform in another way. While most North Dakota districts elect both members of the state House on an at-large basis, legislators split the 9th into two "subdistricts" to ostensibly comply with the VRA.
The court, however, found fault with that approach, which saw Republicans pack Native Americans into just one of those subdistricts. That left District 9A with an 80% Native population, while 9B was just 32% Native. The former consequently supported Joe Biden by a 73-26 margin and elected a Democrat to the legislature, while the latter went for Donald Trump 61-37 and sent a Republican to the statehouse.
The new court-adopted map instead eliminates the 9th's subdistricts and redraws it to include the Spirit Lake reservation, putting it in the same district as the Turtle Mountain reservation. These changes increase its Native population from 54% to 69% and significantly expand Biden's margin of victory, from 51-47 to 60-39. Consequently, Native Democrats would be favored to win the 9th's Senate seat and both House seats in special elections Welte ordered to take place this fall.
Welte had set a Dec. 22 deadline for lawmakers to pass a new map of their own, but Republicans declined to take action. Instead, they've appealed to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, advancing a radical legal argument that would effectively destroy the VRA by rendering it almost entirely unenforceable—an argument that most Republican-led states have voiced support for.
Republicans claim that private individuals cannot sue to enforce the VRA, saying that only the U.S. Department of Justice can do so. However, the overwhelming majority of VRA lawsuits have been brought by private plaintiffs, including voters and civil rights organizations. If the federal government alone could pursue such claims, the number of cases would dwindle even under a Democratic president—and a Republican president could refuse to enforce the law at all.
For decades, the Supreme Court has ruled on VRA litigation involving private parties, including in last June's landmark Alabama case. However, given how often the Supreme Court's far-right majority has sought to undermine the VRA in other cases, little can be taken for granted—and that's exactly what North Dakota Republicans are counting on.
This piece has been updated to note that special elections will take place this year in the redrawn districts. It has also been updated to include precise figures on Joe Biden’s performance in the 9th District.