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Jaeger, Measure 1 critics debate whether moving up petition deadline is necessary

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news Grand Forks, 58203
Grand Forks North Dakota 375 2nd Ave. N. 58203

BISMARCK – North Dakota Secretary of State Al Jaeger supports the lone measure on Tuesday’s statewide ballot as a proactive way to safeguard the integrity of the state’s petition process.

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Critics, including Jaeger’s Democratic opponent in the November election, April Fairfield, call it a solution searching for a problem.

North Dakota voters will decide Tuesday on Measure 1, a constitutional amendment that would change the deadline for filing initiated measure petition signatures from 90 days to 120 days before a statewide election.

Jaeger brought the proposal to the state Legislature last year, and a bipartisan majority of both chambers – 64 percent in the Senate and 85 percent in the House – approved a resolution to put it on the ballot. Six Republicans and one Democrat sponsored the resolution.

The current 90-day deadline gives the secretary of state 35 days to review and approve petition signatures before the ballot is certified, which by law must be done 55 days before the election.

Changing the filing deadline to 120 days before the election would give sponsors 10 days to appeal the secretary of state’s ruling on the petition and 20 days for the Supreme Court to hear such appeals and render a “reasoned” judgment, Jaeger said.

“This is not a power grab by anybody,” he said. “It is to safeguard the credibility of the petition process.”

Measure opponents – including Fairfield , a Bismarck nonprofit director and former state lawmaker,  and Dustin Gawrylow, managing director of the conservative North Dakota Watchdog Network – argue that moving up the filing deadline by 30 days would make it harder for sponsors to collect signatures at the North Dakota State Fair in Minot during the last half of July. Gawrylow has said the fair on average accounts for 25 percent of signatures gathered by sponsors.

“We know that the effect of this law will be to stymie the public’s ability to petition its government,” he said at a recent press conference.

“The intent was definitely to, I think, narrow the window of opportunity for petitions to gain signatures,” Fairfield said.

Jaeger said the State Fair shouldn’t make or break a petition effort and that there are plenty of other events at which to gather signatures.

“Really, to have the support that they need for any type of petition, it seems to me that you’d want to have signatures from every corner of the state,” he said.

The power to initiate and refer laws in North Dakota was adopted in 1914. Since then, 474 measures have been placed on the ballot, with 261 of those requiring petition signatures to be gathered.

Sponsors are currently gathering signatures for four initiated petitions with hopes of getting them on the Nov. 4 ballot. They need to collect 13,452 signatures by Aug. 6 to get a referred or statutory measure on the ballot and 26,904 signatures for a constitutional amendment.

North Dakota had a 120-day filing deadline until 1978, when voters approved shortening it to 90 days. Rep. Bill Kretschmar, R-Venturia, who has served in every legislative session since 1973 except one, was the prime sponsor of the resolution passed by the 1977 Legislature that put the measure on the ballot. He also was the lead sponsor of the resolution last year to change the deadline back to 120 days.

“Why we went from the 120 to 90 days, maybe we thought that was enough time then,” Kretschmar said last week. “But as time goes on, now I think Secretary Jaeger has the good argument for going back to 120 days so that they can do the checking that’s necessary to see if petitioners are valid … and allow the petitioners time for correcting any errors that might have been in there.”

Jaeger said his decision to propose the constitutional change to lawmakers was prompted by two measures he kept off the ballot in 2012 because of faked petition signatures. At that time, 13 current or former North Dakota State University football players paid to circulate the petitions ultimately pleaded guilty to misdemeanor petition fraud. They were sentenced to probation and community service.

Had the sponsors of those petitions challenged Jaeger’s decision to reject them, his office could have been required by the state Constitution’s current wording to include the measures on the ballot before the Supreme Court was done reviewing the appeal. Fortunately, that didn’t happen, he said.

“I don’t believe it’s a solution in search of a problem,” he said of Measure 1. “It is to avoid a future problem that was very easily identified in 2012.”

Fairfield said Jaeger “has made it his stock-in-trade to find solutions to problems we don’t have,” and that the right to petition is more important for North Dakotans now than ever before.

“With our booming economy and our coffers overflowing, special interests will invariably move in and try to limit our right to self-determine, and the initiated measure and referral are ripe targets for that,” she said.

Fairfield criticized Jaeger last week for not consulting with citizen groups who have collected signatures for past ballot measures before he proposed the change. Jaeger said there’s “no base group that exists” when it comes to petition drives.

“The fact is, we identified something, we took it to the Legislature,” he said.

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