Port: Stiffer punishments could be coming for those guilty of petition fraud in North Dakota
House Bill 1230, introduced by Bismarck Republican Rep. Mike Nathe, would put in place mandatory fines for those found to have committed petition fraud.
MINOT, N.D. — An ultimately successful constitutional amendment implementing term limits took a rocky path through North Dakota's ballot measure process last year, with some state officials maintaining that the measure only made the ballot thanks to signature fraud.
Now House Bill 1230 introduced by Bismarck Rep. Mike Nathe, a Republican, would implement stiff new penalties for those found to be guilty of fraud.
The term limits measure was initially kept off the ballot by then-Secretary of State Al Jaeger due to what he said were thousands of fraudulent or otherwise invalid signatures. Attorney General Drew Wrigley, whose office was involved in investigating the matter, maintains that the process was "riddled with fraud."
The out-of-state activist group that backed the measure filed suit challenging Jaeger's decision to the state supreme court. During that process, a lower court, tasked with assessing the facts of the case for the high court, agreed with Jaeger's conclusion that the signatures invalidated were "likely fraudulent."
But the supreme court justices, while not exonerating the term limits campaign from fraud, found that the secretary of state didn't have the authority to infer, in the context of a petitioning process that is just slightly more rigorous than the honor system, that signatures attested to by people who had committed fraud are not reliable.
The supreme court ordered the term limits measure back on the ballot, where it was successful in the November election.
This brings us to House Bill 1230 , which is co-sponsored by both Republican and Democratic leadership in the Legislature. If passed, it would create mandatory financial penalties for petitioners and ballot measure groups.
Individuals found to have willfully submitted invalid signatures would be fined $1,000. Ballot measure campaign groups would be fined $10,000.
This would be in addition to the felony charge that already exists in state law for petitioning fraud, which was itself a penalty enhancement passed by lawmakers after a group of North Dakota State University football players were found guilty of petition fraud in 2012 .
The increase in penalties is a step in the right direction, to be sure, but I think the legislature needs to take the additional step of clarifying, for the courts, the secretary of state's authority to disqualify signatures.
If a given petitioner, or notary, can be shown to have committed fraud, then all signatures collected or notarized by that person should be invalid. Again, our petition process is just a rung or two up the ladder from the honor system. Our laws rely a great deal on the idea that the people participating in this process will be honest.
We learned, from past examples, which include the term limits measure, in my opinion, that not everyone can be trusted. If a person, or group have people, have shown us that they're willing to submit or notarize invalid signatures, then why should we trust any of the signatures they vouch for?
Had this been spelled out in statute when the question of the term limits measure was before the courts, I think they would have kept it off the ballot. As it stands, North Dakotans may well have voted for a constitutional amendment that wasn't on the ballot legally.
This is an easy fix to existing statute, and it should be a higher priority than stiffer penalties, as welcome as those are.