Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


In 1889, Dakota Territory, which had been created in 1861, was divided into the states of North and South Dakota. From earliest statehood, North Dakota was strongly Republican. The delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1889 were overwhelmingly so. The Republican machine run by railroad lobbyist Alexander McKenzie was challenged by the Farmers Alliance and by reform Republicans and Democrats who were able to elect Gov. Eli Shortridge, a Populist, in 1892, and Gov. John Burke, a Democrat, in 1906, 1908, and 1910. North Dakota became the spawning ground for the Nonpartisan League (NPL), a populistreform organization that was able to capture the legislature and statewide offices in 1918 and pass a platform including state-owned enterprises such as a state bank, flour mill, and hail insurance program. The NPL was nonpartisan in name only: it filed its candidates on the Republican primary ballot, and the primaries became key to control of state government. The two Republican factions, the npl and the Independent Voters Association, while bitter foes, would meet to select national party committeemen and divide the delegates selected for the National Republican Convention.

The NPL's dominance lasted only until 1921, when the Independent Voters Association was able to bring about a voter recall of the NPL governor, attorney general, and commissioner of agriculture. The decade of the 1920s was a period of political chameleons who changed political affiliation to run as Democrats if they lost in the Republican primaries. The NPL was not able to regain control of state government until 1932. It refurbished its populist image, adopting diversity rules guaranteeing delegates for women, labor, Native Americans, and veterans. It elected Bill Langer as governor and won complete control of the legislature. After Langer's conspiracy conviction and removal from office in 1934, the state had four governors in seven months. The year 1938 saw a Democrat governor, John Moses, elected with Republican crossover votes. Moses and a conservative Republican-Democrat coalition controlled state politics until 1944.

In 1946 the lines were drawn between the npl and the Republican Organizing Committee (ROC). The ROC swept state elections, and the NPL faded in influence.

From 1947 until 1956 a movement of "NPL insurgents," along with the Farmers Union and Democrats, worked to move the npl into filing in the Democratic column. In 1956 the npl voted to merge with the Democrats, but it took until 1962 before they held a unified convention. They slowly emerged as a competitive party whose candidates won a U.S. Senate seat and the governorship in 1960. The 1980s represented the high-water mark of Democratic Party influence, with election of Govs. Art Link and George Sinner, election of the congressional delegation, a majority of statewide offices, and control of at least one house of the legislature in 1983, 1987, and 1989.

After 1992 the Republicans regained the governorship under Ed Schafer and elected large majorities in the legislature. Majority party leaders in the legislature asserted their dominance over policy vis-à-vis their own governor and moved to establish more legislative checks on executive branch action. Democrats have held onto the state's congressional delegation, but that represents a tendency of state voters to focus on personalities over parties and to favor incumbents efficacious in defending the state's interests in Washington. The swings of power between the NPL and ROC and Republicans and Democrats did not affect some trusted and popular officeholders who were able to serve for decades.

North Dakota politics is an expression of a participatory political culture with high levels of voter turnout. Voters also actively employ the initiative and referendum in their politics. From 1918 to 1998 the state put some 222 constitutional amendments (41 by petition), 65 referrals, and 141 initiatives on the ballot. Signature requirements to put measures on the ballot are quite low (2 percent of population for initiative or referendum, 4 percent for constitutional amendment). Ballot measures have become a vehicle to overturn tax laws and to legislate morality issues (liquor, gambling, Sunday opening) that the legislature seeks to avoid. These mechanisms have also been the sounding board for political mavericks who express their distrust of elected officials and seek to legislate around the legislature. One of the preeminent "referral kings" was Robert P. McCarney, who spent over a decade challenging the legislature in this manner. Until 1998, at least, ultraconservative groups that have had success in putting their agenda on popular initiatives in other states had been unsuccessful in co-opting the North Dakota electorate.

See also PROTEST AND DISSENT: Nonpartisan League.

Theodore B. Pedeliski University of North Dakota

Howard, Thomas, ed. The North Dakota Political Tradition. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1981.

Omdahl, Lloyd B. Insurgents. Dakota Territory centennial ed. Brainerd MN: n.p., 1961.

Robinson, Elwyn B. History of North Dakota. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1966.

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