Lloyd Omdahl: North Dakota voters unprepared to amend constitution

With the help of an excellent summary written in 1973 by Marilyn Guttromson, State Government Services Librarian at the time, we can look back to affirm that the citizens didn’t have a clue about constitutions and the need for revision.

Lloyd Omdahl, use online, horizontal.jpg
Lloyd Omdahl

On April 28, North Dakota will note the 50th anniversary of the defeat of a major rewrite of the state constitution by a vote of 107,643 to 64,073 in 1972.

Ninety-eight delegates, chosen on a nonpartisan basis, included 39 businessmen, 26 farmers and 14 lawyers, were divided politically with 56 Republicans, 31 Democrats and 11 independents. It was a diverse group.

Because the voters are unfamiliar with state constitutions, they are vulnerable to the major interest groups opposing adoption. And when voters lack understanding they are inclined to vote “No.” They did just that.

With the help of an excellent summary written in 1973 by Marilyn Guttromson, State Government Services Librarian at the time, we can look back to affirm that the citizens didn’t have a clue about constitutions and the need for revision.

In 1929, Gov. George Shafer advocated a commission to revise the constitution and appointed five members, but the recommendations were shoved aside with the argument that the depression prevented further consideration.


In 1941, reorganization once again became an issue when Gov. John Moses pushed for a serious study. The Administration Service in Chicago produced a comprehensive reorganization, but the legislature decided to lay it aside because of World War II.

The idea to redraft the state constitution was resurrected in 1961, but major measures were submitted to the electorate and defeated throughout the 60s. By this time the legislature was on board and, in frustration, placed the call for a constitutional convention on the ballot.

To the surprise of experienced observers, the people approved the call by a vote of 56,734 to 40,094. The delegates were nominated by the governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general, with opportunities for independents to run against the nominees.

The proposed constitution was an outstanding document from the political science point of view. Included among its proposals were:

  • Reducing the number of elected state officials from 13 to seven. North Dakota has more state-elected fiefdoms than any state in the Union except South Carolina. The people may like voting for state officials but they don’t know the names, qualifications or conduct of most of these state officials. If you doubt this, just walk down the street and ask passersby who the state treasurer or the insurance commissioner is. Fifty years later, reduction of elected officials still makes common sense.
  • Retaining the “right to work” provision, something designed to suppress unions but didn’t have the votes for repeal;
  • Creating an independent state ombudsman to protect employees and citizens from abusive power or agency inaction;
  • Granting the legislature flexibility with state property taxes;
  • Guaranteeing North Dakotans the right to a healthy environment;
  • Establishing a nonpartisan legislative reapportionment commission;
  •  Making election contests justiciable in a court of law.

In spite of the economic and political differences of the delegates, 91 delegates voted “yes,” four voted “no” and three were absent. It was a convincing consensus.
But the right-wing John Birch Society, the labor unions and the elected officials rumored constitutional revision to death. An interesting alliance of adversaries in bed together.

So it was back to the drawing board. The legislature did cherry pick some of the proposals in succeeding elections, but it was piecemeal at best. Some of the proposals were defeated; a few others adopted.

As a civics lesson, we can only conclude that voters are not informed enough to change constitutions with changing times.

It’s like being an alcoholic. Alcoholics can’t change until they admit they have a problem. Voters need to acknowledge their limitations, and until they do, the state will function with flaws in its system of government because significant changes are beyond the comprehension of the average voter.


A well-informed electorate is critical for the success of a democracy.

Lloyd Omdahl is a former state lieutenant governor and professor at UND.

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