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Mike Jacobs: Some measures reflect voter anxiety

North Dakotans seem to like government by petition. Since 1914, when this novel notion was adopted in the state, voters have used it 272 times, and every instance has provided some insight into the mood of the people. This year is no exception. The four ballot measures on this year's ballot (included in the total) originated by petition. Two of these express anxiety; the others express aspiration.

The prevailing rules of journalism require tackling the more consequential of these first, or at least the most controversial. We'll break the rules here, however, because it's hard to make a judgment about the relative importance of these measures. Instead, we'll follow ballot order, treating the issues as voters will encounter them on Election Day.

The first is a constitutional amendment that would create an Ethics Commission and establish some rules that candidates and office holders must follow or face consequences. These are minor, as far as punishment is concerned. The commission would require reporting, however, and this would make exposure possible — a not inconsiderable item in today's politics.

The anxiety reflected here is that public officials can't be trusted. Similar measures have been presented in the Legislature, but they've been defeated. The committee presenting this iteration includes political activists from both parties. Two, Susan Wefald and Sarah Vogel, are former statewide office holders. Vogel, a Democrat, was agriculture commissioner from 1989-97 and Wefald, a Republican, was a member of the Public Service Commission from 1993-2009. Dina Butcher of Bismarck is the chair; she's been active in Republican politics. Tim Mathern, a state senator, was the Democratic candidate for governor in 2008. Ellen Chaffee was the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor in 2012.

The measure is relatively straightforward; you can read it — and the others — online. Search for the secretary of state's website.

Measure Two, another constitutional amendment, reflects a different anxiety entirely. It would change the state constitution to say that only citizens can vote; the document now says every citizen can vote. As a matter of law, there is no difference, but as a matter of semantics the difference is large. Every is an inclusive term; only is restrictive.

Gary Emineth chairs the committee of petitioners. He's a former chair of the state Republican Party and a former member of the Republican National Committee who has run unsuccessfully for state legislature. State Sens. Gary Kasper and Oley Larson, and state Rep. Aaron McWilliams are committee members.

The first of the aspirational measures, Number 3 on the ballot, would legalize recreational use of marijuana. This is a statutory measure, not a constitutional amendment. The make-up of the sponsoring committee is in sharp contrast to those presenting the constitutional amendments. Its chair, David Owen, gives his address as a dorm room at UND; 10 of the other 27 petitioners give apartment addresses. Some of the names are familiar from an earlier initiative that made marijuana available for medicinal purposes that was approved by 64 percent of voters two years ago. Lawmakers found enough flaws to muster a two-thirds vote to alter the rules and delay implementation of the plan, irritating some of its sponsors, who responded with this much broader measure.

Measure 4 would allow volunteer first responders to request a special license plate, red in color. This is mostly recognition of volunteer service, but it would alert other drivers, and presumably law officers, that the driver could be on the way to an emergency. The special plat would also allow responders free admission to state parks. The measure appears to be a grassroots effort. Nine of the petitioners, including the committee chair, are from Max, a town of 330 people.

Not surprisingly, the marijuana measure (Number 3 on the ballot) has attracted the most attention. Law enforcement officials expressed concerns about public safety, and an argument developed about contradictory polling results. The lopsided vote in favor of medical marijuana suggests support for the measure, the polls notwithstanding. As for safety? That's not really the issue. The issue is freedom.

The ethics commission (Number 1 on the ballot) has drawn opposition from legislators and public officials who think it isn't necessary, and from special interest groups who worry it might interfere with their access to public officials. Those might be the same objection. More seriously, questions about constitutionality have arisen, in wake of the Citizens United ruling in which the Supreme Court found that campaign contributions are a kind of speech.

It's hard to imagine opposition to the license plate measure (Number 4 on the ballot).

The change regarding citizenship (Number 2) is mean-spirited but appears harmless otherwise. Of course that doesn't mean it should find universal approval.

Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Herald.