Principles for Redistricting
by Christopher Dodson,
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
November 2001

Sometime soon, Governor John Hoeven will call a special legislative session so that the Legislative Assembly can establish new legislative districts. The redrawing of district lines is required every ten years so that the districts are roughly equal in population. This “one person, one vote” goal is admirable and furthers the cause of justice. However, the actual process of redistricting is often less than laudable and characterized by partisan politics, self-preservation, and backroom dealings.

How should Catholics respond to redistricting? The issue, for some, may seemed far removed from Catholic social teaching than, for example, abortion or the death penalty. However, we are called as Christians to turn to our faith when addressing any issue and some principles of Catholic social teaching can help guide us.

Perhaps the principles most applicable are the common good and solidarity. In all matters, including redistricting, we must pursue the common good in solidarity with all peoples. This is not a time for regional in-fighting. We must ask whether the redistricting plan brings the people of the state together, even while recognizing and respecting differences that may exist.

The principles of the common good and solidarity also dictate that legislative redistricting should be void of partisan politics. For some in the legislature it is impossible to take any action without concern for how it affects his or her political party. Furthering the cause of the party, however, is necessarily divisive and contrary to the common good.

The process of redistricting in North Dakota, which is left to the legislature, makes it difficult to remove partisanship from the process. The party in the majority will be able to control the next district map. To some people, this makes sense since the voters put them there. However, the argument is logically flawed since voters elect individuals, not a party. In the end, the process demands virtuous conduct by legislators to ensure that they set aside partisan sympathies when creating the new districts.

It follows also that redistricting is not about preservation of one’s seat in the legislature. We need legislators who are better than that.

Two principles from Catholic social teaching -- subsidiarity and the call to community -- call us to respect local communities and their differences when redistricting. In this respect, need to act for the common good must be balanced with the need to respect geographical and cultural differences. The two principles, however, do not necessarily conflict. District lines can be drawn that do not unnecessarily divide communities or diminish the influence of small distinct communities.

The principle, however, raises the question of how many districts there should be and how big is too big. When answering this question, the economic cost of the number of districts should be secondary to the more important issue of whether the number furthers the common good subsidiarity.

Finally, the preferential option for the poor causes us to ask whether the least among us are adversely affected by the redistricting plan. Do poorer and minority communities have a voice or is it diluted within the broader district? Are rural communities still represented or have they been thrown in with the larger and more politically influential towns?

All North Dakotans should look at the proposed redistricting in light of these and other principles from Catholic teaching and contact their legislators with their thoughts.