In these difficult economic times, unemployment in the United States continues to hover around 9%. There is one place that has seemingly avoided the recession completely. In fact, this state is booming with jobs. The state is North Dakota. With new technology being developed in the oil and gas industry, oil reserves in the Bakken Formation once too difficult or expensive to tap are now being drilled at a furious rate. The unemployment rate in North Dakota is now around 3.5% as the state tries to keep pace with growth. Although North Dakota’s population grew only a modest 4.7% from 2000-2010 (compared with a nationwide average of 9.7%), the oil boom is a recent phenomenon, and the true population effects are still unknown. In Williston, North Dakota, a town at the heart of the oil boom, the population grew 17.6% (to 14,716) during the same time period. Since the census, the population of Williston is now estimated to be around 20,000, a 60% increase since 2000. This population growth could have a major impact in the upcoming election in 2012.
With longtime incumbent Kent Conrad (D) set to retire, the seat will be open for the first time since 1987. When Conrad announced his retirement in January, most political commentators viewed this as a likely win for the Republicans. Although North Dakota has had at least one Democratic senator in office since 1982, North Dakotans are generally conservative, do not support President Obama (his approval rating is in the 30’s), and lean Republican. However, the influx of new citizens has given the Democrats hope in the upcoming elections.
Why are these new North Dakota residents important? North Dakota law makes it very easy for new residents to vote. It is the only state in the country that does not require voter registration. To vote, a resident of North Dakota must simply have been a resident in the precinct thirty days before the election. With thousands of new residents flowing into both Western and Eastern North Dakota every month, both Republicans and Democrats have an opportunity to attract new voters that are not yet exposed to North Dakota politics, or likely candidates Heidi Heitkamp (D) and Rick Berg (R). In a state with a little over 670,000 residents, every vote counts.
How these new residents will vote, if they even do vote, is pure speculation. Anecdotally at least, many news reports about the oil boom tell of people leaving their longtime homes in other states in search of a fresh start, faced with unemployment and home foreclosures. It would seem that these new residents would be dissatisfied with the current political situation. On the other hand, in a state that is typically conservative, an injection of new residents could give Democrats a boost. In September, a poll showed Berg with 44% of the vote compared to a yet-to-be-named generic Democrat with 40% of the vote–much closer than most people expected. More recently, the Democrats released a poll that showed Heitkamp actually leading Berg in the race for the Senate. Although the Democrats commissioned the study, Republican polling also shows that Heitkamp’s numbers are improving dramatically. This race will continue to take shape as October 2012 approaches, but one thing is for sure: both the Republicans and Democrats will need to focus their efforts on the new residents currently flooding into Western and Eastern North Dakota.
Thomas Joraanstad is a second-year student at William and Mary Law.