LegitSlater: Does North Dakota Have Too Many Elected Offices?

Last week, SAB contributor Rod St. Aubyn opined that perhaps we in North Dakota elect too many offices. Specifically, he asked:

“What do the offices of State Auditor, State Treasurer, Insurance Commissioner, Public Service Commissioners, Superintendent of Public Instruction, Secretary of State, Attorney General, Agriculture Commissioner and Tax Commissioner have in common? In North Dakota all of these offices have elected heads of the respective agencies. That is not the case in many other states. Many of these agencies are typically appointed by the state’s Governor. For some reason, North Dakotans like their many elected offices. I believe that question has been put before the voters in the past for some of the offices, but North Dakotans rejected the idea of making some of the agency heads appointed by the Governor”

I could not agree more with St. Aubyn in this regard. The numbers of statewide offices we choose to elect instead of have appointed by the Governor is staggering, and can we honestly say we get better government because of it? I think it would be a bit of a stretch to answer in the affirmative on that one. But, this problem may not be just limited to offices at the statewide level. I have often wondered (along with others I know) why it seems we have too many state legislative and local offices in the state.

More concerning to me is how this quantity of offices may impact the quality of service provided to the public. After all, when so many offices don’t have at least two contenders in this state, you can’t help but wonder if there are too many offices to elect to begin with, and if those being elected are being chosen because they are the best choice or simply because they are… well, available (and/or the only choice). As Rob pointed out in early September:

Anyway, by my count, that now leaves Democrats with 18 races unfilled out of 72 total statewide, or 25 percent. In the oil patch, Democrats have left 7 of 15 races unfilled, or over 46 percent.

Overall, Democrats have 54 candidates including 10 incumbents.

Republicans have left only 6 of 72 races unchallenged, or about 8 percent. Overall they have 66 candidates including 49 incumbents.

Yes and most certainly, the Democrat brand is not very popular right now. That definitely contributes to the absence of this party from any real relevance in the state at this time. But putting the partisan alignments aside, we have to consider another fact. Simply put, we probably have too many offices to elect in this state when you (try to) look at them all.


I started doing some digging on the question of local elected offices (state ones are easy) by asking the Secretary of State’s office how many there were. It seemed a logical place to start, as the results of the elections are reported to the Secretary of State after all, and they also oversee election law in the state. You would think they would have some database or spreadsheet or list that detailed how many offices were elected in each county, city, and district (i.e. school, park, etc,) in North Dakota. And of course — they don’t. I point that out not to berate to good people that work over at Secretary Jaeger’s office, but to make a point that I could probably rest my case right there. If his office isn’t set up to have a grasp on how many total offices are elected at the local level, we probably have too many being elected as a whole.

The numbers of local offices elected is of course in part a product to how we have decided to subdivide the state into 53 counties, each with an elected board consisting of three or five commissioners. Some counties elect all commissioners at large (i.e. the top vote getters win the seats regardless of where they live in a county) while others have established geographical districts, but either way the numbers (based on a ND Association of Counties directory I found laying around at a Starbucks of all places) show that there are a total of 229 county commissioners in the state after you count them all up. This does not, of course, account for the numbers of organized townships in each county, and how many members make up each township board. I don’t think there is a good way to get a handle on this, especially if this article is to be ready by the November election.

Also not included in this number are the other countywide offices elected pretty much in each of the 53 counties; specifically the Sheriff, Auditor, Treasurer, States Attorney, Recorder, and Clerk of District Court. Yes, I am sure there are others (and some counties combine certain offices, such as auditor and treasurer), but these offices are generally found in each county, and for the most part are elected. 53 counties worth of these positions equates to 318.

Cities were a little trickier, as the ND League of Cities didn’t have their directory sitting unattended at Starbucks, or even online for that matter. According to the same 2010 census, 357 spots on the state map called themselves a city of some sort, and no I was not going to go and try to figure out the governing board configuration for each. Rob doesn’t pay me enough to do that. Suffice to say, a good guess is there are at least three (including the mayor) for each city to account for tiebreaks. This accounts for the fact that some smaller cities may only have a mayor or may not have filled all their seats, and some larger ones have commission numbers into the double digits (and thus allows these numbers to hopefully come out in the wash); we then have approximately 1,071 city commissioners/ council members and mayors in the state (506,411 citizens reside in cities in ND, and if you use the statewide number of 77.1% being 18 or older, you can estimate 390,442 could actually run for office).

We can easily forget some of the other boards that are out there too. According to the NDDPI’s 2013-2014 Educational Directory, there are 180 school districts in the state. If you use the same number of three board members per district (knowing there are more in many instances) as a minimum for tiebreaks, you are looking at 540 elected officials being dedicated here. Park boards are another one which is hard to get a handle on, but in reviewing the membership of the ND Recreation and Parks Association, one will find there are at least 64 local park boards in the state. The same guess of a minimum of three members each provides a total minimum of 192 elected park board members in the state.

So, putting aside the number of cities as well as school and park-type boards (some of whom could easily have their duties overseen by the county commission), one has to ask why do we have 53 counties (and thus 53 iterations of representative boards as well as countywide offices) in North Dakota? I have heard from a few learned persons in this state that 53 was chosen so no one part of a county would be more than one day’s horseback ride away from the county seat. While I am not sure that is true, if it is I am pretty sure that is not much of a valid concern now since we have things like, you know, interstates and the internet.


There are 47 legislative districts in North Dakota, each with a Senator and two Representatives for a total assembly of 141. That doesn’t seem like a large number of people to represent at the state level  672,591 people (based on the 2010 Census), but when you consider that only 522,720 meet the first tier of eligibility (i.e. be over 18 years old) to run for office, and that serving in our part time legislature still is a pretty big commitment; the pool starts to narrow quite a bit. More importantly and similar to the 53 county question, it prompts you to wonder why we have 47 districts in the state instead of a lower number.

I am pretty sure that at one time 47 was a good number because it was simply harder back in the day to get out and interact with your constituents, but as technology and transportation has evolved, you really can’t make that argument anymore.


So how does this all come together? The below table may help paint some kind of picture which will display just how many people we have to elect on either a full or part time basis to represent the people of this state and mind the store at the state and local level:



As you can assume for yourself, the 2,572 number is probably low, but it is a safe place to work from. If you work that number into baseline eligibility for office in ND (understanding some have more stringent requirements), we have to fill one office from every 203 citizens just to meet the minimum estimated numbers above. When you consider that some people either can’t, should not, or simply are unable to hold certain or any elected offices in the state, that 1:203 ratio isn’t that easy to work with. In other cases, such as a small county, the ratio isn’t a full depiction of their challenge; as they still have to find people to fill pretty much the same number of offices as a large county does.

So, in my estimation and opinion, I do think we have too many elected offices in this state, but the solution will take some significant (yet probably beneficial) restructuring. Such restructuring could involve the appointment versus election of certain statewide offices as Rod suggests, but as you can see above this would be a pretty small drop in the bucket. The real solution resides in taking a hard look at why we have 47 legislative districts and 53 counties (and perhaps even 357 cities), and determining if this number gives us any more return on investment via the numbers we elect than having fewer. As it sits now, I am not seeing how it is, or how it ever will.

Until such discussions occur which may lead to a more streamlined local and state government, we will have to continue to accept as ok (and I certainly do not) that too many elections go uncontested. We can also not use, as a reason to undermine things like ballot measures, the old “if you don’t like it go elect someone else” argument. As you can see above, the math is not in our favor to do this, as the bench too often isn’t deep enough to put others in the game.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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