by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
The election results are in. What will it mean for the North Dakota legislature in 2017?
For one thing, everyone should take notice of the big theme of 2016, which is the populist revolt. While observers discuss the phenomenon nationwide, North Dakotans should remember that populist uprisings are part of our prairie heritage, from Williams Jennings Bryan, through the Non-Partisan League, to today. Whenever the powers that be get too comfortable with outside powers and what are considered the elite, the people on the prairie react. It is why, despite being a “red” state, North Dakota has never really fit into traditional right and left politics.
The populist revolt started in North Dakota before the November election with the success of Doug Burgum in the Republican primary and the repeal of the corporate farming law in June. The trend continued with the November ballot measures. The voters opted for laws on victim’s rights and medical marijuana, despite concerns about costs by legislators and the strong opposition of the legal and medical communities. Legislators, lawyers, and doctors are seen by many as part of the “elite.”
Democrats took a big hit in the election. At the time of writing this column, at least one race is still undecided but it looks like sixteen sitting Democrats could have lost their seats, including all of its leaders. This means that there are only nine Democrats of forty-eight in the Senate and just thirteen of ninety-four in the House.
What happens when one party so dominates the legislative body? It probably makes little difference in the legislative process. Some people like to think that having two strong parties makes for better legislation, but that belief is based on several faulty assumptions. One of those assumptions is that the majority party does not allow diverse voices. Anyone who has witnessed the North Dakota legislature knows that is not true in this state. Another false assumption is that the political parties differ enough to make a difference. That might be true, but it is not always true. Finally, if having two strong parties produced better legislation, states with equally divided legislatures would be better off than states where a single party dominates, which is also not true.
Discipline within parties is greater when the numbers are closer. When a party gets as large as the Republicans have in North Dakota, the leaders have less concern about reigning in every member. They can afford stray votes here and there. Likewise, when the numbers are as low as they with the Democrats, discipline does not matter as much. Even with every vote in line, they will not make much of a difference.
The truth is that in North Dakota there are few “party positions” where members are expected to hold the line. A bill in 2015 that would have given some assistance to low-income families to exercise school choice might have been an exception. Reports drifted in the halls that the Senate Democrats were told that they were expected, without exception, to oppose the bill. No one wavered. After this last election, few of those legislators will return.
Perhaps school choice, one of the greatest anti-poverty efforts a state can embrace, will have a better chance in 2017, but don’t count on it just yet. For one thing, much of the Republican Party has been resistant to school choice, even though governor-elect Doug Burgum has made some statements in support of the idea. Also, school choice programs cost money, at least initially, and the state is not likely to invest in new programs during these tight financial times.
The decline of the Democratic Party in North Dakota, tracks the national party’s greater embrace of abortion rights. Two decades ago, many, if not most, of the state’s elected Democrats were pro-life. That number began to drop and then so did the number of elected Democrats. There are lessons there, if the party is willing to listen.
This does not mean that every defeated Democrat favored abortion rights. At least a few pro-life Democrats lost their seats this election. We cannot rule out, though, that Planned Parenthood’s dominance in the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton’s espousal of the most pro-abortion rights position in U.S. history hurt the remaining pro-life Democrats in socially conservative districts.
Democrats and Republicans worked together to pass the state’s alternatives to abortion program several years ago. This program reimburses pregnancy centers, maternity homes, and adoption centers for the work they do, but is now severely underfunded. The program uses only federal dollars. However, there has been fear that a Clinton administration would prevent use of federal money for pro-life work. The election may open up opportunities for Democrats and Republicans to work together again to expand this important program.