North Dakota Secretary of state race will be one to watch

Al Jaeger has served 30 years in the office. It's a long time, but it's not a state record.

Mike Jacobs, Grand Forks Herald columnist.

Al Jaeger’s announcement that he won’t run for re-election didn’t cause an upwelling of interested candidates for his job, North Dakota secretary of state. Blogger Rob Port surveyed some of the usual suspects and didn’t find much enthusiasm for the office.

That seems a little odd. It’s a consequential office and the pay’s good, $114,486 a year. What’s more, the state’s politicos have known since 2018 that Jaeger would be leaving the office when his term runs out at the end of 2022. That ought to be plenty of time to gin up some ambition, especially because the state’s politics have hyperventilated as Republicans battle one another for the soul of their party.

Of course, it is early in the election cycle. Candidates will likely emerge early next year, ahead of the round of district conventions. It would be surprising if there weren’t a contest for the party endorsement at the state convention in March next year – as there was in 2018, when Jaeger lost to a Fargo upstart tied to the fringe of the party. That candidate’s personal embarrassment forced him out of the race, and Jaeger was re-elected running as an independent. He said then he wouldn’t be a candidate in 2022.

He will have served 30 years.

That’s not a record. Ben Meier was secretary of state for 32 years ending in 1988. In the state’s 132-year history, there have been only 13 secretaries of state. That’s an average tenure of 10 years.


Lately, the office has been more administrative and less political, but it has a been a steppingstone to federal office in the past. Patrick D. Norton and Thomas Hall made the leap from secretary of state to the U.S. House, Norton in 1910 and Hall in 1924. Norton served a single term there; Hall left the House after 10 years. He returned to the secretary of state’s chair in 1942.

More secretaries have been turned out of office, usually in primary elections, though Jim Kusler was defeated in the general election of 1992, after serving a single term. Kusler was an anomaly. He is the only Democrat elected to the office in the state’s history. Coincidentally, Kusler and Jaeger came from the same town, Beulah, N.D., in the heart of coal country. Jaeger left to sell real estate in Fargo; Kusler still farms near there.

Jaeger got 52% of the votes in that election; in 2006, he won 53%. Otherwise, his winning percentage has never been below 65% – except in 2018. Jaeger lost the Republican endorsement that year and declared that he wouldn’t challenge the winner in the primary. Jaeger won the three-way race with 47 percent of the vote.

Two other secretaries were turned out of office, bringing the total to four, or five, if Jaeger’s rejection by the 2018 convention were to count. It's a high percentage, considering that the percentage of governors defeated is much less – and the governorship is a higher profile job.

The secretary of state’s most public role is administering elections. The office has an extensive list of other responsibilities, running to two pages on the state government’s website, under “Duties of the Secretary of State.” Many of them are licensing and filing requirements for enterprises as varied as limited liability companies, legislative lobbyists, fundraisers, and charitable organizations.

The secretary is the custodian of the Great Seal of the state and “keeps a register of …. the official acts of the governor.” Secretary Robert Byrne took this responsibility seriously, dashing into the flames as the Capitol building burned to rescue an original copy of the state constitution. He suffered burns that night in 1930; in the primary election of 1934 he lost his job. The winner was James Gronna, son of Asle J. Gronna, who served in the U.S. Senate, where Woodrow Wilson branded him one of “a little group of willful men” who opposed the League of Nations.

The secretary of state serves on the Board of University and School Lands, the board that collects royalties from production on state-owned mineral acres; on the Emergency Commission, lately the object of controversy when the Legislature trimmed its powers; on the State Historical Board; on the board that chooses Roughrider Award winners; and on the state canvassing board, which tallies and certifies election results.

All in all, a big job.


Full disclosure

I’ve worked closely with Secretary Jaeger. He’s been a steward of the state’s election records, and his office website is the go-to source of information about elections past and future. He’s also a careful reader of this column who always calls my attention to errors.

Perhaps we look alike. I’ve been mistaken for Secretary Jaeger at least twice, once in the Emmons County Courthouse and once on the steps of the Capitol.

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

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