As coronavirus changes political campaigns, North Dakota requirement for signatures remains

Some potential candidates may drop from election challenges.

Al Jaeger

As the coronavirus pandemic warps the campaign trail in Grand Forks, a few things have remained rigid.

Among them is North Dakota’s requirement that candidates for local offices collect and submit a roster of signatures in order to be placed on ballots for June’s elections. In Grand Forks, that means a hard deadline at 4 p.m. Monday, April 6.

It also means that one resident angling for the mayor’s seat might not make the cut. Art Bakken said he has about 220 of the 300 signatures required to get onto citywide ballots.

“I don’t want people, or me, or anybody, putting themselves at risk right now,” Bakken said of collecting signatures.

Staff at the North Dakota Secretary of State’s Office put together a way for candidates to collect and submit those signatures electronically: They can email or fax a copy of the signature form to a voter, who then prints it, signs it, scans or faxes the signed copy back to the candidate. The candidate then can forward it to the city.


But Bakken said that was difficult because a lot of people he’s been petitioning don’t have the proper equipment. He’s been trying to pick up signatures in-person at businesses that are still open, but said he doubts he’ll be able to get enough by Monday.

North Dakota law establishes the signature requirement. Secretary of State Al Jaeger said he and his staff did not ask Gov. Doug Burgum to suspend that law during the pandemic because, Jaeger said, it would have been unfair to candidates who had already collected the signatures they needed, because the state has established guidelines for doing so electronically. Also, he said it would be unfair because all candidates have been able to collect them since Jan. 1, which is well before the virus began to shut down many segments of society.

“If people run for office, there are ways that they could have gotten the signatures over a period of the last several months very easily,” Jaeger told the Herald on Wednesday. “And the fact is that we have options for them that we have been encouraging for the last several weeks for them to use.”

The electronic option has, theoretically, always existed, but the need for it hasn’t been prevalent before the virus made face-to-face interaction a potentially dangerous proposition. Staff members at Jager’s office said they told leaders at the North Dakota Republican Party, the North Dakota Democratic-NPL, the North Dakota League of Cities and the auditor at every county in the state about collecting and submitting signatures electronically.

But the secretary of state’s website makes no apparent mention of that option, however, and word only seems to have trickled down to candidates themselves.

Robin David, a candidate for Grand Forks mayor, and Danny Weigel, who’s running for another term on the Grand Forks City Council, both said they hadn’t heard about that from Jaeger’s office. Weigel heard it through the grapevine after a candidate for state treasurer approached him for his signature electronically.

Lee Ann Oliver, an elections specialist at the secretary of state’s office, said Jaeger and others didn’t try to inform candidates because it would have been tough to figure out who they are. The signature requirement for ballot questions is established in North Dakota’s constitution, Oliver said. That, presumably, means waiving the state law that establishes the signature requirement for candidates would not open the door for a host of off-the-wall referendums to creep onto ballots.

Weigel said he got the majority of the 55-plus signatures he needed the weekend of March 28-29. He approached people who were on walks and otherwise out and about, but sanitized the pen he and signees used after each visit. Earlier this week, Weigel turned in all the paperwork he needed to get on ballots in June.


David said she hit the necessary 300 mark about a month ago, but she’s been adding a “cushion” of additional signatures since then. (The city verifies each person on a candidate’s list, which means some might be thrown out for one reason or another and thus lower the total.)

She split with Weigel and Bakken when asked about the signature requirement remaining in place.

“I wonder about the impact that that has on democracy,” David said. “We don’t know what other names might have emerged in any races across any of the elections.”

Neither Weigel nor Bakken had a problem with the rule remaining during the pandemic.

“I was the one that waited, so it’s my fault,” Weigel said.

“It leaves out the ones that waited too long, which I did, and that’s my own fault,” Bakken said. “If they change it, that’s great. If they don’t change it, well, I understand that, too. I’m not hard to get along with. It is what it is.”

Bakken suggested he might shift to a write-in campaign.

And the presumptive move toward electronic petitions is only one way that the virus has changed Grand Forks candidates’ campaigns. Many have moved almost entirely online , and the election itself is set to be done strictly via mail .


Grand Forks County Commission members voted last week to permit a vote-by-mail setup, and Burgum waived the requirement that each county have at least one spot to vote in-person.

Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

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