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The new election year norm: North Dakota voters to consider several ballot measures

Voters at Holy Family Catholic Church in Grand Forks fill out their ballots during the North Dakota primary election in June 2016. File photo / Forum News Service

BISMARCK — North Dakota voters will decide whether to amend the state's laws and constitution on four separate measures this fall.

The measures range from legalizing recreational marijuana to allowing volunteer emergency responders to apply for red personalized vehicle plates. Voters will also choose whether to establish a state ethics commission to investigate politician malfeasance and to make it clear that only U.S. citizens can vote in North Dakota elections.

An effort to raise the state's minimum wage faltered this year, while the leader of another group seeking to repeal North Dakota's ban on Sunday morning shopping decided to run for the Legislature instead.

The November ballot will carry a lighter slate than the last midterm election in 2014, when voters shot down seven of eight measures. Voters approved four of the five measures on the ballot two years ago.

On Monday, Aug. 13, Secretary of State Al Jaeger's office confirmed the recreational marijuana measure will be on the ballot. Each of the measures also have been assigned a number.

To read the full text of each measure on November's ballot, visit the Secretary of State's website.

Ethics commission (Measure 1)

Voters will be asked whether to add anti-corruption language into the state constitution, including the creation of an ethics commission that could investigate claims made against public officials, candidates and lobbyists.

The measure would also prohibit lobbyists from giving gifts to public officials and prevent elected officials from being a lobbyist for two years after holding office. It directs agency leaders to "avoid the appearance of bias" and calls on the Legislature to enact laws to disclose the "ultimate and true source of funds" spent to influence elections and state government actions.

South Dakota voters inserted similar language into their state's laws in 2016. But Republican legislators there later repealed it, with Gov. Dennis Daugaard calling it an "unconstitutional measure."

The North Dakota effort is backed by national groups like Massachusetts-based nonprofit Represent.Us, which was involved in the South Dakota campaign. Dan Krassner, the group's political director, said they're focused on fixing a "broken political system" by passing anti-corruption measures across the country.

Krassner said members of the local group backing the measure, North Dakotans for Public Integrity, reached out to Represent.Us in early 2017. He said they'll offer both financial and "infrastructural" support, such as training volunteers.

"We serve as a resource for local and state reform initiatives," he said.

The campaign raised about $379,000 in cash and in-kind contributions by mid-June, according to North Dakota campaign finance records.

Those records list various celebrities as "sub-contributors" to Represent.Us, which boasts actress Jennifer Lawrence as a member of its board. Krassner said the celebrity contributors weren't giving specifically for the North Dakota effort.

"We went above and beyond to share as much information as possible about Represent.Us and our donors," he said.

Critics have called the measure unnecessary. Legislators amended state law last year to boost campaign finance reporting requirements and prohibit the personal use of campaign funds.

"Everybody is for ethical behavior," Fargo Republican state Rep. Jim Kasper previously said. "The fact of the matter is, this is not the way to do it."

Citizen voting (Measure 2)

Another measure amending the state constitution would make it clear that only U.S. citizens can vote in North Dakota elections.

The proposal's top supporter, former state Republican Party chairman Gary Emineth, said it's meant to be a proactive move. He has pointed to noncitizens being allowed to vote in local elections elsewhere.

State law already requires North Dakota voters to be U.S. citizens, but Emineth has argued laws are more easily changed than the constitution.

Emineth is running for a state Senate seat in Bismarck this year. As of early July, he poured almost $44,000 of his own money into the ballot measure campaign and received more than $210,000 from Virginia-based Liberty Initiative Fund, a nonprofit that pushes measures on state and local ballots, according to campaign finance records.

Deputy Secretary of State Jim Silrum has said he wasn't aware of any convictions for noncitizens voting in North Dakota.

Marijuana (Measure 3)

North Dakotans are still waiting on medical marijuana after approving it at the ballot box in 2016, but they'll have a chance to fully legalize the drug for adults in November.

"Especially with the state Legislature dragging their feet on implementing the medical marijuana initiative they already passed, I think North Dakotans are pretty fed up with prohibition and ready to move towards a policy of regulation and legalization," said Erik Altieri, executive director of the pro-legalization group NORML.

The measure would amend state law to legalize "non-violent marijuana related activity" for those over 21, except for selling to minors, and it wouldn't impose limits on how much somebody could grow or possess. It would also create a process for expunging records of those previously convicted of a crime that's legalized by the measure.

David Owen, the measure's chief backer, has pitched the proposal as a matter of criminal justice reform. Law enforcement officials have raised concerns about impaired drivers, while one anti-legalization group warned it could increase the drug's exposure to children.

"And I have said for a long time that I don't think that if marijuana is legalized in North Dakota we will be healthier or safer," North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, a Republican, told reporters in June.

The group backing the measure, Legalize ND, has raised about $8,300, according to a statement it filed Sunday.

Personalized plates (Measure 4)

A retired farmer is leading the charge on a ballot measure to allow voluntary emergency responders to apply for red personalized vehicle plates.

Norval Semchenko of Max, N.D., hopes the measure will acknowledge the volunteers' work and dedication. He said he pitched the idea to legislators who hesitated to push the issue while the state dealt with tight budgets.

Under the proposed statutory change, the state Department of Transportation director would be required to issue red personalized plates at no cost to the volunteers, which would include firefighters and emergency medical personnel. The plates would serve as an entrance pass to all North Dakota state parks.

The campaign raised more than $1,900 as of July 9.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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