by Christopher Dodson
North Dakota Catholic Conference
Let us take a look at the last election, the upcoming legislature, and how you can help make a difference.
Democrats made the most gains in November’s election, although Republicans still maintain a majority in both chambers. The Democrats gained six seats in the state Senate, bringing their total to 21 seats. The Republicans still control the Senate with 26 seats. The Democrats gained seven seats in the state House of Representatives. That brings their total in the House to 33, with the Republicans retaining 61.
The number of Catholics in the legislature dropped from 34 to 28. Four Catholic legislators chose not to run for reelection. Voters chose not to return three additional Catholic legislators. One freshman legislator is Catholic, as is a legislator returning after a hiatus. This brings the percentage of Catholics serving in the legislature to about 20 percent, which is slightly lower than the percentage of Catholics in the state.
Although the percentage of Catholics in the legislature may have dropped, the percentage of North Dakota voters who are Catholic may have significantly increased. According to exit polls conducted for CNN and other agencies, forty percent of the voters in North Dakota described themselves as Catholic. This is 17 points higher than the percentage of Catholics in the state (23%.)
I had the opportunity to ask John Green of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life whether these numbers sounded accurate. He noted that there could be reasons why the numbers could be skewed, but said he had no reason to doubt them. The case for the accuracy of the numbers is strengthened by the fact that exit polls in Florida also showed a Catholic voter turnout significantly higher than the state’s percentage of Catholics.
Several scenarios might explain why Catholics voted in a greater proportion this year. Something might have motivated North Dakota Catholics, in particular, to vote in higher numbers this election than in previous elections. However, it is difficult to think of what issue or issues would have motivated Catholics, but not non-Catholics, to vote in this last election.
Another possibility is that something discouraged non-Catholics in the state from voting that did not discourage Catholics. Again, it is difficult to identify such a factor.
A more plausible explanation might reveal itself in the voter turnout. The voter turnout in the last election was much lower than in 2004. Only 44.5% of the state’s eligible voters voted in this last election, compared to the 64.9 % that voted in 2004. Of those who did vote in 2006, a higher percentage of them were Catholic compared to 2004, indicating the state’s Catholics are more likely to vote than non-Catholics in non-presidential year elections. Perhaps Catholics are taking seriously their moral obligation to participate in the political process.
How did North Dakota Catholics vote in the last election? Unfortunately, the data does not reveal much. The exit polls for North Dakota show that when it came to the “larger” races, Catholics voted much like the rest of the state, returning Senator Kent Conrad and Representative Earl Pomeroy by large margins. The percentage of Catholics supporting the two incumbents was only slightly higher than the percentage of non-Catholics doing so. The exit pollsters are not interested in state legislative races. The state political parties might have that information, but they are unlikely to release what they probably consider propriety information.
Although these numbers provide some interesting questions to ponder, they really do not mean much by themselves. What matters is what the legislators do after they are elected. Likewise, what the state’s Catholics do after the election matters.
It is noteworthy that Catholic teaching does not state that Catholics have an obligation to vote. The Church teaches that Catholics have an obligation to participate in the political process. Voting is only one small part of that process.
The North Dakota Catholic Conference provides an opportunity for Catholics to engage in the development of public policy. Every parish operates a legislative action network, through which parishioners can disseminate information on issues and how to contact legislators. Even those not connected to a parish network can get information directly from the North Dakota Catholic Conference. Members of the Legislative Action Network will receive legislative alerts, updates, and regular e-newsletters during the legislative session. To sign-up, go to ndcatholic.org.
Even if you do not join the legislative action network, be sure to regularly check out the News and Updates page at the conference’s web site. You can even subscribe to our newsfeed and get up-to-the-moment information on what is happening.
Joining the North Dakota Catholic Conference Legislative Action Network and regularly checking the conference’s web site are two ways lay Catholics can help fulfill their God-given blessing and charge to shape the political world.