Six feet apart. We all know the rule.
But those six feet may as well have been a mile for the politicians who this spring hoped to collect signatures in time to get on ballots across the region.
Last month, North Dakota Secretary of State Al Jaeger declared that incumbent and potential politicians in the state cannot collect petitions electronically. That, of course, is pertinent, since the coronavirus pandemic has pushed most people indoors and closed all large gatherings where petition-collectors traditionally fill their ledgers to qualify for the election, or where mass numbers of signatures are collected to put initiated measures on the ballot.
For politicians who were late to start gathering signatures, it proved especially difficult, yet North Dakota’s rule – the one that requires actual signatures before a politician can get on a ballot – was not temporarily suspended or altered.
The right decision? Yes.
As Jaeger said in a Herald report published April 2, changing the rule so close to the deadline would not have been fair to those who put in the time to collect signatures via traditional methods, i.e. through face-to-face interaction or by knocking on doors in their district.
“There are ways that they could have gotten the signatures over a period of the last several months very easily,” Jaeger told the Herald. “And the fact is that we have options for them that we have been encouraging for the last several weeks for them to use.”
The option he referenced isn’t necessarily an easy one. It allowed candidates to email or fax a copy of the signature form to a voter, who then would print it, sign it, scan it and email or fax it back to the candidate. Again, not a great option, but at least an option nonetheless.
We agree with Jaeger that it wouldn’t have been fair to suspend traditional rules when some candidates already had qualified the hard way.
Also, we were concerned about how suspending the rule would affect statewide ballot measures. These issues often are backed by out-of-state interests, and the signature process is a necessary hurdle they should have to clear before gaining access to the state’s voters.
If those campaigns are successful in collecting the thousands of signatures required to be on a statewide ballot, that’s fine. But the state should not reduce the traditional legwork required, even if it’s due to a pandemic. Allowing some sort of electronic signature process could have made it much easier for these measures to be placed before voters.
Some politicians were hindered by Jaeger’s decision. One is Art Bakken, the mayoral hopeful from Grand Forks who said he was unable to get out and collect enough signatures to officially qualify as a candidate. Three candidates were able to get the 300 signatures required, but Bakken said he could not, due to the pandemic.
Now, he says he is running as a write-in candidate, which means he can still technically win in the upcoming election, although he’s a longshot since his name won’t appear before voters. But he is a victim only of his late start to a time-tested and valuable process.