North Dakota's Laws Have Grown 1,781% Since 1877


The legislature is in recess for crossover, and legislators are at home in their districts enjoying a much-deserved breather.

The bills the House passed, and the bills the Senate passed, are each being sent to the opposite chamber for committee hearings, debate and votes. In the first part of the legislative session the stakes are lower. The House can vote on something knowing that there’s still an opportunity for more debate and scrutiny in the Senate, and vice versa. But post-crossover is when the rubber meets the road for the legislature. Now the bills that pass (those not needing reconciliation through conference committee) are just a signature from Governor Jack Dalrymple away from becoming the law for the whole state.

“Ninety-four of us get to make laws for the other 700,000,” said House Majority Leader Al Carlson on the floor of the House last week. That’s a heady responsibility, and it’s worth noting as we enter the post-crossover time just how many new laws past legislatures have created for the state.

Measuring the scope of the law isn’t easy, because which metric do you use? You could count words, but some laws use a lot of words to do very little, while others use few words to do a lot. You could count sections and subsections, but that’s imperfect for the same reason. So, to measure the growth of the laws of the State of North Dakota I chose pages. It’s not perfect, for the reasons I mentioned above plus reasons such as changes in the way the laws are printed such as margins and fonts, but over time I think it paints a fairly accurate picture.

A sort of scary picture. With assistance from Kylah Aull, Manager of Library and Records for the North Dakota Legislative Council, I got a sampling of page numbers from the printed North Dakota code from the very first laws established for North Dakota back in territorial days in 1877 to present. Here’s the data:


Here’s growth trend:


To be fair, my time intervals aren’t standard, and we can point out that modern North Dakotans face a lot more issues arising from new technologies than the north Dakotans of 1877. That’s fair, but the point is clear. The number of laws “on the books” for North Dakota has grown, dramatically, over the years to the point where North Dakotans have 15,181 pages worth of laws they must obey at risk of one form of penalty or another. That’s 1,781% more pages of laws than citizens of the territory that existed before we were a state.

And remember, not being aware of the law is no excuse.

This is something for legislators to consider as they cast votes on bills that will become laws in the coming weeks. Perhaps our legislators should consider the words of Calvin Coolidge, who said in giving advice to his father who had been elected to serve in the state legislature of Vermont, “It is much more important to kill bad bills than to pass good ones.”

Coolidge is described by Amity Shlaes in a recent biography as “our great refrainer.” North Dakota could use some more “refrainers.”