North Dakota lawmakers wading through myriad election bills, again

The bills continue a nationwide trend that pervaded the 2021 Legislature, which handled more than 40 election-related bills

Members of the North Dakota Senate State and Local Government Committee at work Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023, in the Peace Garden Room of the state Capitol. The committee was working on bills dealing with elections. Above are, counterclockwise from front, Sen. Judy Lee, R-West Fargo; Sen. Jeffrey Barta, R-Grand Forks; Sen. Kristin Roers, R-Fargo (chair); clerk Pam Dever; Sen. Judy Estenson, R-Warwick; Sen. Sean Cleary, R-Bismarck; Sen. Ryan Braunberger, D-Fargo; and legislative intern Connor McCormick.
Tom Stromme / The Bismarck Tribune

BISMARCK — Supermajority-wielding North Dakota Republican lawmakers in the Legislature have again filed a flurry of election-related bills, including ones to ban certain voting methods and mandate post-election audits.

The bills continue a nationwide trend that pervaded the 2021 Legislature, which handled more than 40 election-related bills in the wake of the 2020 presidential election and former President Donald Trump's baseless claims of election fraud.

North Dakota Secretary of State Michael Howe
Mike McCleary / The Bismarck Tribune

Secretary of State Michael Howe's office is monitoring more than 30 such bills, several of which had hearings Thursday.

North Dakota's top election official, who is a former lawmaker, said his ultimate goal in following the bills is, "Do they make it easier to vote and harder to cheat?" — a mantra from his 2022 campaign.

The Republican secretary and county election officials say North Dakota's election processes are secure. They cite State Auditor Josh Gallion's findings last fall from a state election system review, which concluded, "It is exceptionally unlikely that the results of an election in North Dakota would be fraudulently influenced."


McKenzie County Auditor/Treasurer Erica Johnsrud, North Dakota County Auditors Association Executive Director Donnell Preskey and Burleigh County Election Manager Erika White testified in several hearings on election bills Thursday at the Capitol, including ones to restrict vote centers and the use of pollbooks, which are records of voters of a precinct.

"As a priority of ours, we want to make sure our elections are as secure as possible, but we also want to make it convenient for the voters to cast their ballots," Johnsrud said during a break in a meeting of the House Political Subdivisions Committee.

"We want high voter turnout, high voter confidence in the security of our elections, and that's what we're trying to preserve, is that everything is secure and that the legislation that's being proposed enhances that, instead of (doing) the opposite," she said.

McKenzie County Auditor/Treasurer Erica Johnsrud testifies against North Dakota House Bill 1314 before the House Political Subdivisions Committee on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023, in the state Capitol. The bill deals with the local election process.
Tom Stromme / The Bismarck Tribune

Bills they support are ones adding penalties for people who interfere with elections, and ones clearing up election laws, such as a set-aside ballot process for voters to prove their U.S. citizenship.

Preskey said voters "should have great confidence in our election process and system that's in place." In 2021, she and county auditors demonstrated election equipment for lawmakers, with plans for demonstrations again soon.

"It's important for these committees who sit in and hear all these bills and hear from some people that might have other views that they can understand the process and the system and the checks and balances that are in place," Preskey said.

Howe said he'd like to do more educational outreach about the state's election system, such as redoing the secretary's website, publishing "walk-through videos" and Q&As, and increasing the frequency of county-level election training. North Dakota has new county auditors across the state, Howe added.

Several bills would restrict voting by mail, a popular method in North Dakota. More than 70,000 North Dakota voters cast ballots by mail in the November 2022 election, or nearly 30% of all ballots cast.


Sen. Jeff Magrum, R-Hazelton, has brought Senate Bill 2308, which he said "is to get rid of the mail-in ballot." He cited a lengthy period to vote as creating problems and expensive campaigns for candidates, and ballots passing through "so many hands" creating "room for mischief."

Absentee ballots and early in-person voting would still be available but within a shortened time frame, he said. Thirty-seven counties offer voting by mail-in ballot, which differs only slightly from absentee voting.

Magrum said the 2020 election "created a lot of doubt among the people," including ones so shaken they have told him they won't vote anymore.

He has filed several election-related bills, with the ultimate goal "to try to bring up these questions ... and try to create confidence in the system."

Johnsrud said voters like the mail method, which enables them to research and consider measures and candidates while voting from home, and avoid busy polling locations and long drives to the polls in rural areas.

Howe supports voting by mail, citing the rural state's sometimes inclement weather on election days and the many voters who have become accustomed to the method.

Sen. Kristin Roers, R-Fargo, chairs the Senate State and Local Government Committee, which heard Magrum's mail ballot bill Thursday. She attributes the trend of election bills to "still a lot of questions in people's minds (that) there's not a lot of transparency.

"What happens during an election is not something that you see the full process from beginning to end, so it's easy to doubt what you can't see, and so I think that there are people who want to make sure that we can be as transparent as we can be," Roers said.


Her committee is hearing bills on everything from voting processes to campaign contributions and disclosures.

The House Government and Veterans Affairs Committee on Friday hears a handful of similar bills, too.

Chair Austen Schauer, R-West Fargo, said, "It all comes down to integrity and honesty, and we've demonstrated that we've done that." He cites retired Secretary of State Al Jaeger's "dedicated" approach to the office over 30 years.

Schauer also points out the clear pattern in election results in deeply conservative North Dakota: Republican supermajorities in the Legislature.

"My question is, why are we complaining? We're doing pretty darn well," he quipped.

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