BISMARCK — A sweeping election reform measure recently approved for the general election ballot will not go before voters this November after an intervention by the North Dakota Supreme Court.
In an expedited decision announced Tuesday, Aug. 25, the court unanimously barred Secretary of State Al Jaeger from including Measure 3 on the November ballot. The measure has become a point of partisan division this summer as opponents came forward with complaints, echoed by Jaeger himself, that the measure used misleading tactics to hoodwink signers.
When Jaeger announced earlier this month that Measure 3 had earned the signatures to qualify for the November ballot, the measure drew a legal challenge almost immediately.
In a suit directed at Jaeger, the conservative Brighter Future Alliance argued that Measure 3 petitioners failed to provide potential signers with written versions of the measure’s affected statutes. Close to 100 North Dakota Republican lawmakers also filed a legal brief asking that the court withhold the measure from the ballot.
Because of the short timeframe required to turn around ballots in time for early voting, the Supreme Court issued an expedited ruling just days after hearing arguments in a digital hearing last week.
"Embedding a statute into the Constitution, which by definition is a law inferior to the Constitution and subject to change by normal legislative procedure, would threaten the sanctity of our fundamental law," the justices wrote in a decision that they grounded in a century-old legal precedent.
Jaeger told Forum News Service that his office intends to follow the instructions of the court and wipe the measure from the ballot. "The court has ruled, and the measure will not appear on the ballot," he said.
The Fargo-based North Dakota Voters First (NDVF) initially presented more than 36,000 signatures backing Measure 3 to the secretary of state's office in July, the culmination of several months-worth of grassroots campaigning.
"I'm extremely disappointed and I'm more than a bit surprised," NDVF lawyer Tim Purdon told The Forum. "I'm disappointed for the 36,000 people who signed this petition and for the voters of North Dakota."
Carol Sawicki, the chair of NDVF, added in a statement that “all North Dakotans should be alarmed at how an entire political establishment came together, used all the levers of power and government, marshaled the special interests together, and denied the voters the right to make a simple choice about how our elections should be governed.”
If passed, Measure 3 would have amended the North Dakota constitution to take redistricting out of the hands of elected lawmakers, implement an open primary system, and make North Dakota only the second state in the country to use statewide ranked-choice voting.
But opponents claimed that NDVF petitioners obscured these sweeping amendments while advertising a lesser provision that would have expanded the window for overseas military voting.
"It was ill-conceived, poorly written and the forces behind the measure showed contempt for our initiated measure processes and safeguards,” wrote Brighter Future Alliance chair Pat Finken in a statement. “This outcome further demonstrates why we must not allow out-of-state special interests to tamper with our constitution and our elections to further their political agenda.”
Jaeger has previously announced that two separate measures will appear on the November ballot, one that would reform the State Board of Higher Education and another that would require proposed constitutional amendments to pass through the state legislature.
The secretary of state’s office is expected to produce drafts of the November ballot by Monday, Aug. 31.
Readers can reach reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at firstname.lastname@example.org.