MINOT, N.D. -- Those enthusiastic about North Dakota's initiated measure laws argue they facilitate grassroots involvement in politics. They paint a picture of engaged citizen activists taking to the streets as volunteer petitioners to get their ideas put on the ballot for approval by voters.
If only that idyllic portrayal were accurate.
In practice, it's not how initiated measure campaigns work.
In 2016, a billionaire named Henry Nicholas put millions behind the Marsy's Law campaign. He hired local political activists to organize his campaign and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on paid signature collectors. Once his proposal was qualified for the ballot, the campaign used an expensive marketing campaign to drown out objections coming from law enforcement, prosecutors, defense attorneys and victims' rights activists.
Now we're stuck with Marsy's Law.
So much for the grassroots ideal.
In 2018, a group calling themselves the North Dakotans for Public Integrity, and portraying themselves as bipartisan, campaigned for a constitutional amendment to create a state ethics commission and new restrictions on political activities. It was another exercise in out-of-state interests hiring locals as a front for a big-money effort to muscle an issue onto the ballot.
Most of NDPI's money came from left-wing groups based in other states, including a long list of Hollywood activists, and paid petitioners collected the signatures for NDPI's measure. They received hundreds of thousands of dollars for their efforts.
That same year, another measure, to ban non-citizen voting, also had a local spokesman but mostly out-of-state money and paid petitioners.
Both of those measures also became law.
Now it's 2020, and again we have a big-money initiated campaign fueled by out-of-state interests.
Including another billionaire.
It's the North Dakotans for Public Integrity again, only this time they're calling themselves North Dakota Voters First. Their biggest financial backer so far is a group called the Action Now Initiative, which was founded and funded by billionaire Enron alum John Arnold.
This group is again using paid petitioners, and there's an additional wrinkle. Those signature gatherers are describing this new measure as the Help Heroes Vote Act because one tiny section of the proposal deals with voting laws for deployed military.
It's inclusion is a mask for the more controversial parts of the measure.
The bulk of the proposal, the parts the petitioners don't seem to be talking about, makes radical changes to North Dakota's electoral process, including the elimination of the political party nomination process, ranked-choice voting for statewide elections and a shift in redistricting authority from the Legislature to the state ethics committee.
The petitioners are so brazen in this bait-and-switch that Secretary of State Al Jaeger said his office is receiving complaints from bamboozled citizens "almost every day."
We may like to think of initiated measure campaigns as a pure example of citizen activism. They've stopped being that. We need to adjust our perceptions and our laws accordingly.
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Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at email@example.com.