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Tracy Frank, Published November 03 2012

Who represents North Dakota?

FARGO - Each election season, voters gravitate toward candidates they feel best share their interests.

But do our elected officials reflect the people they’re representing?

The Forum took a look at how the composition of the North Dakota Legislature compares to the state’s and found that the state’s lawmakers are less likely to be women, full-time workers and minorities than the North Dakota residents they govern and more likely to be retired, self-employed and married.

While women make up 49.4 percent of the state’s population, only 15 percent of the Legislature is female. In fact, North Dakota is 45th in the nation for the number of female legislators, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

Today, only one more woman serves in the Legislature than in 1979, said Deborah White, chairwoman of the department of sociology and criminal justice at Minnesota State University Moorhead.

“It’s pretty bleak in terms of representation in elected office,” White said. “I think we make better decisions when we have more voices involved.”

Part of the problem is women with children at home have a difficult time leaving their families and jobs for four months every other year, several legislators said.

According to census data, 29 percent of North Dakota households have one or more people under age 18. Only 17 percent of legislators say they have children under age 18 living at home with them, according to the 112 of 141 legislators who responded to a Forum survey.

Rep. Bette Grande, R-Fargo, experienced firsthand the difficulty of serving in the Legislature as a mom to young children. She was first elected in 1997 when her children were ages 5, 8, and 11.

“It was difficult to start with, and every session was always hard,” Grande said.

Sen. Connie Triplett, D-Grand Forks, said one reason men are vastly over-represented is the power of incumbency.

“When you have individual legislators who serve 30 years or more, it takes a long time for cultural change to work its way through the system,” she said.

Rep. Duane DeKrey, R-Tappen, said over the past 20 years, many women have told him they hate politics.

“After listening to the political ads on TV and radio this campaign season, I don’t think that is surprising,” he said. “It (the Legislature) should be representative, but you can’t force people to run for office.”

Triplett said the Legislature will never be representative of the population as long as it is part-time. The North Dakota Legislature meets for a few months every other year.

“It is very difficult for regularly employed people to get permission from their employers to take four months off from their jobs every other year to serve in the Legislature,” she said. “Ideally, every significant group should have a place at the table. However, since the citizens of North Dakota routinely reject the idea of longer legislative sessions, a representative Legislature is not likely in the foreseeable future.”

The current system makes it difficult for younger residents who are working and raising families to run for office, legislators said.

“It isn’t a job. It isn’t something you can live on, so we do not attract the mix of business people, professional people, gender that make up our state,” said Rep. Kathy Hawken, R-Fargo, adding that the Legislature could use more doctors and lawyers.

“We make laws and sometimes we make mistakes,” she said.

While people ages 50 and older make up 34 percent of the state population, they account for almost 86 percent of legislators who responded to The Forum’s survey. Retirees make up 12 percent of the state’s population and 33 percent of legislators.

Some, like Rep. David Monson, R-Osnabrock, say experience should be valued.

“Experience makes a big difference in the quality of legislation passed,” he said. “Obviously you need a mix of ages, gender and backgrounds to get the best legislation, but experienced and educated people in the Legislature can certainly put themselves into another person’s shoes while debating legislation in order to pass laws representative of almost everyone in our society.”

But Rep. Lawrence Klemin, R-Bismarck, said he couldn’t have served in the Legislature as a full-time practicing attorney if he didn’t live in Bismarck. The way it is, he’s lost about $50,000 in income in each of the seven sessions he’s served, he said.

“Most people 18 to 50 need to work and can’t support their families while the Legislature is in session,” he said. “Consequently, it’s hard to get people to run for office. The legislators don’t earn much while in session and also have a lot of expenses and travel time.”

Kjersten Nelson, a political science assistant professor at North Dakota State University, says there are benefits to having a legislature that looks like the people it represents.

Different types of legislation are discussed, leadership styles change, and the public perception of the legislature changes when it is more representative of the population, she said.

“There are some theories that people will feel like these institutions are more legitimate if they feel like they’re actually represented there,” Nelson said.

Nelson says while the current system wasn’t set up to exclude people, the state makes the rules in how it plays out.

“When people in the institution start looking around and realizing they don’t have a very diverse mix of people, it’s actually in their interests to think about some of the institutional rules that make it that way,” Nelson said. “Having different perspectives at the table gives us better policy and gives people more legitimacy in the institution.”

Hawken agrees and says legislators’ vision isn’t as good as it could be if it included a few more voices.

There is discussion every session about changing the legislative format, possibly to meeting for a shorter period of time every year, but it has never gained traction, Grande said.

Some legislators say the electorate is an adequate representation because they’re elected for the people, by the people.

“Legislators, as well as other elected officials, represent all of their constituents,” said Sen. Judy Lee, R-West Fargo. “We don’t only represent our age group or our career peers or our religious group or those who voted for us. As part-time, citizen legislators, we are in session for four months every two years, and the rest of the time we are back at home, working and interacting with our neighbors and colleagues every day.”

Sen. Dave Oehlke, R-Devils Lake, said the Legislature is the best it can be in terms of fair representation.

“It is a true citizen legislature, represented by legislators who live and work every day in their home districts and brush elbows with their constituents regularly,” he said. “It is difficult to get out of touch.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter Tracy Frank at (701) 241-5526