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Port: Term limits petitioner says submitted signatures are under investigation by the BCI

"I got term limits on the ballot and guess what guys? BCI is doing an investigation on the term limits," one activist behind a constitutional amendment to implement term limits said during a Facebook live stream.

PHOTO: Term Limits ballot measure petition circulator
In this reader-submitted photo, a circulator for a proposed constitutional amendment that would implement term limits in North Dakota uses signs that falsely claim the petition is about term limits for Congress.
Submitted photo
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Minot, N.D. — In February, a group promoting a constitutional amendment implementing term limits for state lawmakers and the governor turned in over 46,000 signatures to Secretary of State Al Jaeger.

That's well above the roughly 31,000 required by the law for an amendment measure, and Secretary of State Al Jaeger's office has until March 22 to finish authentication of those signatures, but there are rumblings indicating that process may have revealed some problems.

In a video posted to Facebook on March 12 , Charles Tuttle, a professional petitioner who has worked on several ballot measure campaigns in North Dakota, claims he was contacted by the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation about the veracity of the signatures for the term limits amendment.

"I got term limits on the ballot and guess what guys? BCI is doing an investigation on the term limits," he said, going on to dismiss the idea that there are problems with the signatures. "It's so corrupt right now what's going on. Somebody is motivating the Secretary of State's office to investigate the term limit petition. I don't know what they're looking for."

"You can't disqualify the signatures," he continued. "Even if you're going to accuse people of doing anything illegal, you can't disqualify the signatures."

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“Mr. Tuttle’s decision to publicly acknowledge being questioned, along with his faulty characterizations leave my office with no choice but to provide some brief clarifying comments," Attorney General Drew Wrigley said in response to Tuttle's claims. "I have directed agents of the BCI to investigate allegations of petition and associated non-compliance and/or wrong-doing."

Wrigley's office oversees the BCI, but he noted that whatever the investigation uncovers, it will be up to Jaeger to make the call about putting this measure on the ballot.

"Our efforts are aimed at establishing whether these allegations are either substantiated or refuted by the facts. Either way, the facts will be turned over to the Secretary of State in a timely fashion, after which the law calls upon the Secretary of State to either certify or not," he said. "The office of Attorney General is here to establish the factual foundation upon which the Secretary of State may eventually act."

He declined further comment on the specifics of the investigation.

"I don't have anything to say about that right now, Rob," Jared Hendrix, chairman of the ballot measure campaign, told me when I reached him for comment about the BCI's inquiry.

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Secretary of State Al Jaeger also declined comment.

"Because there is an ongoing investigation, the information you are requesting is exempt from an open records request," he said.

The law he cited exempting the records I requested is section 44-04-19.1 of the North Dakota Century Code , and specifically subsections 3 and 7.

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That law exempts "active investigatory work product" from open records requests, with that work product defined as "records obtained, compiled, or prepared by a public entity in an effort to monitor and enforce compliance with the law."

State law sets out many requirements for petitioners. Those who gather signatures must be eligible to vote in the state, and while petitioners may be paid an hourly wage - the term limits campaign has employed a firm that has been paid over $1.4 million to collect signatures for ballot measures since the 2016 cycle - they cannot be paid per signature.

If there are problems with the term limits signatures, this wouldn't be the first time such problems kept a measure off the ballot.

During the 2020 cycle a ballot measure that would have made sweeping changes to North Dakota's elections was kept from the ballot by the state Supreme Court which found problems with the way petitions for it were circulated.

In 2012, signature fraud perpetrated by a group of North Dakota State University players kept a marijuana measure off the ballot .

In 2010, a measure aimed at reforming the state's pharmacy laws was also kept off the statewide ballot by the state Supreme Court .

Even the roughly 15,000 signatures beyond the law's requirement to make the ballot may not be enough to save the term limits measure if widespread problems are found. The verification process isn't designed to have the Secretary of State verify each one of the often tens of thousands of signatures submitted for a given ballot measure.

If enough problems are found with the signatures that are sampled in the process, that may be enough to keep the whole measure 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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