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N.D. secretary of state challenger urges ‘no’ vote on Measure 1

BISMARCK — The Democratic candidate for secretary of state joined a conservative activist Wednesday in urging North Dakota voters to reject a proposal that both said could have a chilling effect on voter-driven ballot measures.

North Dakotans will vote June 10 on Measure 1, a constitutional amendment that would move up the filing deadline for initiated measure petitions from 90 days to 120 days before a statewide election.

“This measure may seem benign enough, but it’s not,” said former state legislator April Fairfield, who is challenging North Dakota Secretary of State Al Jaeger for the seat in November. “What this measure actually does is strike a blow at the heart of a longstanding North Dakota tradition.”

Conservative activist Dustin Gawrylow, managing director of the North Dakota Watchdog Network, called Measure 1 “simply a solution in search of a problem.”

This year, the 90-day filing deadline to get an initiated measure on the November ballot is Aug. 6. A 120-day deadline would have been July 7.

Moving up the filing deadline by 30 days would make it harder for sponsors to collect signatures at the North Dakota State Fair in Minot, which takes place during the last half of July and on average accounts for 25 percent of signatures gathered by sponsors, Gawrylow said.

Sponsors would have to collect signatures at the State Fair in the off-year before the election, before many are ready to start the process, he said.

“It simply is not a pro-voter or pro-citizen measure. This is designed to restrict the people’s ability to influence legislation,” he said.

Jaeger, who proposed the change last year and convinced lawmakers to put it on the ballot, said the State Fair “is not going to make or break” a petition drive. He noted sponsors would still have one year to collect signatures.

“My position is that this maintains the rights of all of the people, the (petition) circulators and everybody else out there who needs to have the assurance of knowing that the petitions were circulated in a lawful manner,” he said.

Under current state law, the secretary of state’s office has 35 days to review a petition to determine if it has enough valid signatures to be placed on the ballot.

However, the end of that review period butts up against the requirement that the ballot must be certified 55 days before the election, potentially leaving no time for the North Dakota Supreme Court to review an appeal filed by the sponsor if the sponsor is unhappy with the secretary of state’s decision, Jaeger said.

And because of the constitution’s wording, a ballot measure that’s under review by the Supreme Court at the time the ballot is being prepared must be placed on the ballot, even if it’s insufficient — though Jaeger acknowledged that hasn’t happened during his 21 years in office.

“It came very close in 2012,” he said, referring to a conservation measure that was disqualified from the ballot because of signatures forged by hired petition circulators.

Jaeger said moving up the deadline would give sponsors 10 days to file a challenge and the Supreme Court 20 days to render a decision. If approved, it also would set a new deadline requiring that any challenges must be filed with the Supreme Court no later than 75 days before the election.

Fairfield, a nonprofit executive director from Bismarck who spent 10 years in the Legislature, said she’s not unsympathetic to giving the Supreme Court more time to review a contested petition. But she noted it was Jaeger, not the high court, who requested the change.

“What is troubling to me is that the answer to every time management issue according to the secretary of state is how to take it away from the citizens of North Dakota,” she said, comparing it to Jaeger’s decision in 2012 to temporarily shorten his office’s window hours to allow his staff to catch up on paperwork — a decision Jaeger has defended as “one of the smartest things that I’ve ever done in this office.

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.