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Group misses abortion petition deadline; backer blames Jaeger

BISMARCK -- A backer of the failed petition drive seeking to refer three anti-abortion laws to the 2014 ballot claims Secretary of State Al Jaeger violated the state constitution by taking too long to approve the petitions for circulation.

But the head of the sponsoring committee that requested the petitions blamed the group's failure largely on opposition from the state's only abortion clinic.

The sponsoring committee, which requested the petitions in April, fell short of reaching 13,452 signatures for each petition by its Monday deadline, which, as prescribed by law, was 90 days after the laws were filed with the secretary of state.

Roland Reimers, secretary of North Dakota Referral Supporters, a committee created to help circulate the petitions for the sponsoring committee, said Jaeger denied the committee's right to begin circulating petitions by "nitpicking" the petitions for such things as grammar, fonts and margin spacing.

"He not only violated his own guidelines, but the state constitution," Reimers said. "Because he delayed the thing, it basically made it almost impossible to get all the signatures required in the limited time we had available."

The sponsoring committee, chaired by Gary Hangsleben of Grand Forks, asked for the petition titles April 2, giving Jaeger and Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem five to seven business days to approve the titles. Jaeger said they were approved and sent back April 11 with detailed information on how to format the rest of the petition, with the petition officially ready for circulation April 19.

Reimers, who has been involved in many other petition drives, said this was the most difficult to get approval by the secretary of state's office, as the sponsoring committee had to hire outside help to meet the requirements.

Reimers said there has been a lot of variation in grammar and fonts in past petitions and doesn't believe Jaeger has the authority to demand such minuscule changes.

"I don't see how he can demand perfection and absolute control over the wording and grammar and hasn't done so in the past," he said. "What authority is there to demand format changes that aren't required in the law. Where in law does it require 12-point font or so much space for the signatures?"

Jaeger said someone only needs to look to state law to show his office's authority over the petitions.

The state constitution says, "the secretary of state shall approve the petition for circulation if it is in proper form and contains the names and addresses of the sponsors and the full text of the measure." State law says, "a referendum or initiative petition must be on a form prescribed by the Secretary of State ..."

Reimers speculated that Jaeger, a Republican, may have taken so long because the Republican Party championed the laws during the legislative session.

Jaeger rebuffed Reimers' allegations Monday, arguing that his office stayed within the deadlines it had to meet.

"Our standards are the same, they have been consistently the same for the entire 20 years I've been in office," Jaeger said. "It doesn't make a difference to me what the topic is, my first obligation is to the oath of office, which is to uphold the constitution of the state of North Dakota."

Jaeger said he is comfortable with how his office handled the petition requests, saying it was the committee that took so much time.

"We expedite them all, we communicate immediately with the sponsoring committee," he said. "Had they responded according to our instructions, they would have gained several more days."

On Monday, Hangsleben requested that Jaeger extend the committee's filing deadline by 90 days, but the request was denied. Hangsleben said he is now drafting a letter to the state Supreme Court asking for a ruling on whether he should be granted an extension.

Hangsleben said in an interview that the group fell short of obtaining the required signatures largely due to an effort by the state's only abortion clinic to keep the group from referring the laws to the 2014 ballot.

The Red River Women's Clinic in Fargo has already challenged one of the laws, and plans to sue the state over the other two in the coming month.

"Everything has gone really smoothly except I can only guess the clinic has intimidated people across the state not to support the referral," Hangsleben said. "We had a lot of supporters, but I can only guess she sent out emails and made calls not to support the referral."

Hangsleben was referring to the clinic's director, Tammi Kromenaker, who said Monday that she only posted a note not to support the referrals on the clinic's Facebook page right after the request was made for the petitions.

"Constitutional rights should not be put to a popular vote," she said Monday. "I understand people's passion for what happened in the legislature, but we don't believe the referral process was the way to go in this situation."

Hangsleben said referral is needed in many cases, providing a true democratic process by allowing every eligible voter to have a voice.

"It's a true democracy, you can have 13,000 people sign on and the whole state can debate it and have a vote on it, it's truly a grassroots effort," he said. "But a lot of people don't want that, it's really hard to understand."

Kromenaker said the clinic and women's rights groups already have a lot on their plate in the coming year trying to lobby against the personhood amendment that will be on the fall 2014 ballot.

She said the clinic, a nonprofit, does not have the financial resources to campaign against three more ballot measures.

But "no matter who started it, it was going to fall to some of the women's rights groups to get out the public education portion of the campaign," she said.