Does North Dakota’s Legislature Need Affirmative Action?

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According to a Forum Communications story out today, North Dakota’s legislature isn’t diverse enough. “Forum Communications 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,” reads the article written by Tracy Frank.

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.”

I’m not impressed with this analysis, but before I get into my criticism, let me say that concerns about the challenges of serving in the legislature for the average citizen are not lost on me. Most citizens can’t afford to skip four months or so of work every other year to serve in the legislature while it is in session. Most citizens would probably find it difficult to make time for the demands of travel for committee hearings and other duties, and while every election year the politicians accuse one another of raising legislative pay excessively, the reality is that our legislators are paid a pittance for the amount of time that they put in.

The idea that service in the legislature is much easier for a certain type of citizen – one who fully or partially retired or self-employed and able to devote the time required – does worry me. It also worries me that, because the legislature is part time, we have far too much governing being done by bureaucrats instead of our elected representatives. “They have two years to fool us for four months,” one legislator told me last year about the challenge of being a part-time legislator trying to administer a full-time government.

Making the legislature full-time, with commiserate compensation, might solve those problems. But then, the problems with having a legislature in session full time are much greater. The demands of governing North Dakota do not require a full-time legislature, and I’m very afraid of the mischief idle legislators might get up to.

But back to the question at hand, is the legislature not diverse enough? I find the question a little insulting to begin with. It supposes that if you are male, you cannot promote sound policy for females. That if you are white, you cannot promote sound policy for Native Americans and other minority groups. The thinking is that if we fix the process to impose upon it a mandate for diversity we will get better policy.

As though diversity for diversity’s sake were somehow a virtue.

What utter bunk.

This is all born from the bankrupt idea that equal outcomes are better than equal opportunity. The political process in North Dakota, whatever its problems, is the same for everyone. You must follow the same rules whatever your gender or skin color. Thus, the opportunity to serve is the same for everyone. That not all demographics choose to campaign in proportionate numbers does not invalidate the process.

Nor should we promoting the idea that votes should be cast because of gender or skin color. Such considerations shouldn’t matter. What matters are ideas, and those who would impose some formula of gender or skin color on the process are trying to drag us back into a more divisive sort of politics.

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Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com. In 2011 he was a finalist for the Watch Dog of the Year from the Sam Adams Alliance and winner of the Americans For Prosperity Award for Online Excellence. In 2013 the Washington Post named SAB one of the nation's top state-based political blogs, and named Rob one of the state's best political reporters. He writes a weekly column for several North Dakota newspapers, and also serves as a policy fellow for the North Dakota Policy Council.

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