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Port: Sec. of state blocks measure which would have required supermajority vote for constitutional amendments

For the second time this year a statewide ballot measure has been kept off the ballot due to problems with the signature collection process.

Mike_Haugen.jpg
Former North Dakota Adj. General Mike Haugen speaks at a press conference in support of a proposed ballot measure on Tuesday, April 13, 2021 in the North Dakota Capitol.
Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service
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MINOT, N.D. — Earlier this year Secretary of State Al Jaeger's office blocked a proposed ballot measure that would have implemented term limits in North Dakota's constitution due to numerous problems with the signature collection process .

Now Jaeger's office has blocked a second measure, again citing problems with the signatures.

It may be time to set aside the populist chest-thumping about the supposed sanctity of North Dakota's very stupid initiated measure process and admit we have a deep-rooted problem in need of a fix.

Protect North Dakota’s Constitution, the committee behind this most recent measure to be blocked, turned in an estimated 33,624 signatures to Jaeger's office on April 22.

Jaeger's hand-count of those signatures showed that only 31,622 were turned in.

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That was just a bit more than the 31,164 required by law.

According to a letter Jaeger sent to the sponsoring committee, 5,738 signatures were disqualified for various reasons including:

  • petitions not being circulated in their entirety
  • three petitioners who had numerous problems with their signatures including reports from signatories who said they hadn't actually signed
  • signatures from residents of other states
  • generally improper signatures

These disqualifications brought the total number of accepted signatures down to 25,884.
Jaeger's letter indicates that potential criminal violations have been referred to Attorney General Drew Wrigley's office.

His office is still investigating potential violations in the term limits signatures.

"Truly disappointed. We're still reeling from it. It's been a long hard process," Jeff Zarling, one of the campaign organizers, told me when reached for comment. "We started this over a year ago, working our way through each step of it. We hired a firm early on to do it, and we had challenges with that. We tried a secondary option and that didn't come to fruition. So we ended up trying to carry it ourselves."

"It's so disappointing to use this paid signature process, and run across these problems where thousands of signatures are dismissed," he continued. He said the campaign used a firm to "onboard" paid petitioners, and he said he was "disappointed" that they "didn't follow the law."

He declined to comment further, indicating the matter may end up in court.

The term limits folks have disputed Jaeger's decision. They hired a law firm that has worked with disgraced former President Donald Trump to try and overturn the results of the 2020 election, but Jaeger responded to a blisteringly critical letter from the firm by standing behind his original decision .

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How do we stop this from happening? How do we make it so that the initiated measure process represents genuine citizen activism, and not deep-pocketed interests looking to bypass the legislative process by paying their issues into the ballot? How do we make it so that people who try to game the term limits process are held accountable?

I'm open to suggestions, but it's clear the status quo isn't working.

Yes, the secretary of state is catching these problems, but should we really have to rely on a statewide elected official to play goalie to keep these flawed measure campaigns off the ballot?

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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