OMDAHL: Measure No. 1 begs issue of representativeness

Measure No. 1 on the November ballot is a constitutional amendment that would require all legislators to live in the districts they represent and, if they move out of the district, they must resign.

Omdahl COLUMN BOXMeasure No. 1 on the November ballot is a constitutional amendment that would require all legislators to live in the districts they represent and, if they move out of the district, they must resign.

The proposed amendment is simple and direct but it attempts to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.

In the legislative debate over the proposed constitutional amendment, Senator Jim Kasper, R-Fargo, claimed that the measure was important because of the problems that North Dakota has had over the course of the last many years of legislators not living in their districts for their entire terms.

In response to Kasper, Rep. Mark Dosch, R-Bismarck, reported that he lived six blocks outside of his district because of a recent move but his heart was still in his district because he owns businesses and has employees in the district.

He agreed that Measure No. 1 is “trying to solve a problem that really doesn’t exist.” And as a legislative observer for 50 years, I submit that out-of-districts representatives are as uncommon as alligators in Lake Sakakawea.

To worry about “representativeness” when it comes to out-of-district legislators is begging the issue.

The strict application of the 1-person, 1-vote rule has resulted in chopped up legislative districts so that a significant number of voters have already lost contact with their legislators. Representatives and the represented can be miles or blocks apart in the same districts.

Added to the fragmentation of multi-county districts, the Legislature created more gaps in “representativeness” by gerrymandering to please some favored legislators or political party.

North Dakota has at least five districts that are unconstitutional because they clearly violate the constitutional requirement of compactness.  Gerrymandering is defiling the meaning of “representativeness.”

Then when each new decennial census is announced, we go through the process of redistricting; the boundaries are redrawn and gerrymandering restyled. Legislators get a new batch of constituents before they have barely become acquainted with the present ones.

While concern has been expressed about representativeness when it comes to out-of-district representation, no bells of alarm were sounded when the Legislature was passing measures requiring new ID rules that were certain to restrict voter participation.

Maybe the voters in Bismarck would rather keep the person they elected even though he/she has moved out of the district until his/her term is up. So why should the rest of the state tell them that they can’t have that continued representation if they so choose?

Voters would seldom elect someone who didn’t live in the district at election time. And it is highly unlikely that a non-resident would even think of running in a campaign that would certainly focus on the issue of residency.

Besides, short of stoning, there are other methods for removing unwanted legislators. Unhappy constituents can use the recall process or they can ask the Legislature to exercise its present authority to expel members.

In the few cases where legislators end up outside of their districts, there have not been great cries for change by the constituents. In the recent cases of nonresident representatives, the grassroots voters in Bismarck District 32 or Grand Forks District 42 have not been the ones concerned about residency. It has been the politicians playing the game of “gotcha.”

So when we consider representativeness we need to scan the whole breadth of factors, beginning with the 1-person,1 vote mandate, legislative gerrymandering, loss of constituency contact and suppressed voting,  all of which have impaired “representativeness” more than the presence of one or two out-of-district legislators.

Lloyd Omdahl was the 34th Lt. Gov. of North Dakota under Gov. George Sinner. He has also worked as a professor of Political Science for the University of North Dakota. His column has been featured in newspapers in the state.







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