FARGO — A group behind a proposed ballot measure filed a lawsuit against North Dakota Secretary of State Al Jaeger on Wednesday, May 6, arguing that petition circulators should be allowed to collect signatures online during the coronavirus pandemic.
The plaintiffs, which include former first lady Jane Sinner and a Fargo-based organization called North Dakota Voters First, contend that the state law requiring petition circulators to collect necessary signatures in-person is unrealistic and dangerous as the outbreak of COVID-19 continues to affect the state. The group would need to submit at least 26,904 signatures from qualified voters by July 6 to get the measure on the Nov. 3 general election ballot.
"Plaintiffs are forced to choose between foregoing their right to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot or complying with petition requirements that create an unnecessary and potentially lethal situation involving thousands upon thousands of close personal interactions during a pandemic," the lawsuit says.
Jaeger approved the group's petition for circulation last week. The measure proposes a broad new constitutional amendment that addresses election audits, military and overseas voters, open primaries, instant runoff elections and ranked-choice voting.
Perhaps most relevant to the suit, the measure also proposes assigning the task of legislative redistricting to the newly formed state Ethics Commission. Currently, the Legislature is responsible for redrawing district lines every 10 years following each U.S. Census and will do so in 2021 after this year's national headcount.
The group argues it should be allowed to collect electronic signatures during the outbreak because the inability to get the measure on the ballot this year would mean the current redistricting rules stay in place for another decade. Tim Purdon, a lawyer for group, says this would cause "irreparable harm." The plaintiffs will also seek an expedited hearing on the matter in U.S. District Court in Fargo.
Jaeger said Wednesday he would not comment on any active litigation, but he previously told Forum News Service he has doubts about upholding the integrity of the process if petition circulators could collect signatures online.
Similar lawsuits have been filed in Arkansas, Massachusetts and several other states by groups looking to get measures on the 2020 ballot. A federal judge in Arizona rejected a bid to submit electronic signatures last month, according to the Arizona Republic. Meanwhile, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy issued an executive order a week ago stating that signatures for ballot measures may be collected online, according the New Jersey Globe.
A separate activist group behind a push to legalize recreational marijuana in the state through a ballot measure announced last month it would cut bait on efforts to get the measure on the November ballot because of difficulties with getting enough signatures during the outbreak.