BISMARCK, ND (KXNET) — The Republican majority leaders for the North Dakota Senate and House have come out in support of Secretary of State Michael Howe’s decision to appeal a ruling requiring the Legislature to redraw its redistricting maps after a lawsuit by tribal members.

The newly redistricted maps passed during the 2021 North Dakota Legislative Session with support from both parties (73-18 in the House and 40-7 in the Senate, with only four Democrats voting against it).

“Drawing up the subdistricts around the state’s two most populous reservations was necessary to avoid illegally diluting the Native American vote. We firmly believed that under the federal law and previous court decisions, we had to do this,” said Rep. Bill Devlin (R-Finley), Chairman of the Redistricting Committee. The tribal proposal to connect two reservations 60 miles apart into one district was similar to maps previously struck down for intentional gerrymandering.

U.S. District Chief Judge Peter Welte said the redrawn legislative districts violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The ruling came months after a trial held in June in Fargo.

In his ruling, Welte said the plan approved by the state Legislature to redraw voting districts in accordance with the latest census data “prevents Native American voters from having an equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice” — a violation of the landmark civil rights law.

Welte gave the Republican-controlled Legislature and the secretary of state until Dec. 22 “to adopt a plan to remedy the violation.”

“We were honestly surprised by Judge Welte’s ruling,” said House Majority Leader Mike Lefor (R-Dickinson), “we worked diligently for months to come up with a plan which was supported by both parties and carefully crafted to ensure fair representation for our tribal communities.”

The proposed map passed the Redistricting Committee 15-1. At the time, Rep. Ruth Buffalo, a Fargo Democrat and a citizen of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, advocated for the subdistricts, which she said would help the reservation elect more reflective political representation. 

Meanwhile, a three-panel appellate court recently voted 2-1 to uphold a lower court decision out of the District of Arkansas which ruled Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act is not privately enforceable. Thus, only the federal government, not private citizens, have the right to challenge voting maps. The ruling suggests that enforcement of the Voting Rights Act should be handled by politically accountable officials and not outside interest groups. 

“The people of North Dakota expect that public policy will be made by their elected representatives, yet we know that far left law firms, often disguised as public spirited, not-for-profit organizations, will come to North Dakota and initiate lawsuits to change that policy. When they attempt to impose their agenda on the people of North Dakota by starting lawsuits, we will fight them every day, all day,” said Senate Majority Leader David Hogue (R-Minot). 

The new 8th Circuit ruling, if upheld, could cause the tribal lawsuit to be dismissed and require the federal government to intervene for any challenges to the district map.