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ND bill renews conflict over Burleigh County vote centers

Speaker of the House Rep. Lawrence Klemin, R-Bismarck, is the main sponsor of House Bill 1270 involving requirements to establish or alter precinct boundaries and polling places with the approval of district party chairman approval. Mike McCleary / Bismarck Tribune

BISMARCK -- A conflict between Burleigh County leaders and Bismarck legislators over establishing universal vote centers is resurfacing at the Capitol this session.

Several Bismarck lawmakers are sponsoring a bill they say aims to promote collaboration with legislators and party leaders when a county commission considers changing voting locations.

House Bill 1270 would require county commissioners to get the consent of a majority of legislative district party chairmen before designating or changing polling places. The bill also would require the county commission to consult with legislators in the districts affected before establishing or altering precinct boundaries.

“Mainly, we just want to collaborate with them and be consulted on it and have some input before everything’s done,” said Rep. Lawrence Klemin, R-Bismarck, the primary sponsor of the bill.

But Burleigh County Auditor Kevin Glatt said the proposal appears to be an effort to pre-empt the county from establishing vote centers.

“The county’s responsible for administration of elections. This proposal will usurp local authority and control,” Glatt said. “It appears to be a philosophical difference between the legislators who signed onto this bill and those they serve.”

The Burleigh County Commission voted 3-2 in 2017 to eliminate about half of its polling sites and, instead, operate universal Election Day vote centers, allowing people to vote at the location most convenient to them.

The move would have reduced the total number of county polling sites from 27 to 16, including 12 universal vote centers and four traditional polling sites in rural communities.

The goal was to increase voter turnout and make elections more accessible, Glatt said.

“We strive to make elections better for our citizens, not for political purposes,” he said.

The decision was opposed by all Bismarck legislators and later reversed after a legal issue arose about the action. The city of Bismarck had not granted the county authority to change precinct boundaries.

Klemin had called the county’s proposal “too drastic of a change.” He said the bill seeks to get the parties involved at an early date to work together on an agreement.

“Right now, they're not even required to consult with legislators, and we have a big interest in where the precinct lines are and where the polling places are located,” Klemin said. “We would like to be consulted.”

Burleigh County Commissioner Jim Peluso said he opposes the legislation.

“I don’t understand why they would want so much control of it,” said Peluso, adding he hopes the county will again work toward establishing vote centers.

“Most of the people I talk to think it’s a great idea,” he said. “I think it would enhance voting.”

County Commission Chairman Brian Bitner, who opposed moving to vote centers after legislators raised concerns, said he doubts the commission will take a formal position on the bill.

"I trust that they’re looking out for the citizens," Bitner said.

Sen. Erin Oban, D-Bismarck, a co-sponsor of the bill, said she’s not opposed to universal vote centers but wants to make sure there are enough polling sites to accommodate voters. She said the bill is not an attempt to take away authority from counties.

“I would suggest it doesn’t take away local control as much as it adds local voices,” Oban said.

Rep. Pat Heinert, R-Bismarck, said he supports voting centers, but wants to expand the discussion beyond county auditors and county commissioners to ensure the locations are convenient for people in all districts.

“We’ve just got to make sure that we’re not limiting people their ability to vote,” Heinert said.

The bill is assigned to the House Political Subdivisions Committee. A hearing has not been scheduled.