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Election fairness issues loom large in North Dakota secretary of state race

Both the Republican and Democratic candidates for North Dakota secretary of state say elections are fair, but call for more education and awareness of the election process.

North Dakota Capitol
North Dakota Capitol in Bismarck.
Forum News Service file photo
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BISMARCK — The Republican and Democratic candidates for secretary of state agree that elections are fair in North Dakota, but say more should be done to instill public confidence during a period of skepticism about election results.

Michael Howe is the Republican candidate and Jeffrey Powell is the Democratic candidate for the secretary of state position, the state’s top election official whose office also handles business registrations.

Al Jaeger has been secretary of state for 29 years, and voters will choose his successor in the Nov. 8 election.

Both candidates agree that North Dakota’s elections are well run and there is no history of voter fraud, but said skepticism that arose in other states during the 2020 presidential election — which then-President Donald Trump falsely claimed was stolen — spilled over into the state.

Powell was blunt about assigning primary responsibility for the distrust in elections, which he said has been drummed up by the false allegations raised by Trump and echoed by many Republicans, amplified by GOP-friendly news outlets including Fox and Breitbart.

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The threat to voter rights, in fact, is what prompted Powell, who is director of student life at Mayville State University, to seek the office of secretary of state.

“I have always cared about elections, I have always cared about democracy,” he said. “Voting rights in North Dakota may soon be under assault in the same way they are in lots of other states.”

Jeffrey Powell and Michael  Howe
North Dakota secretary of state candidates are Democrat Jeffrey Powell, left, and Republican Michael Howe.
Contributed photos

Howe, who said he believes Joe Biden won the presidency in a fair election, wants to strengthen public confidence in the elections system by “opening the blinds” and providing more transparency into how votes are counted.

Howe, who lives in West Fargo, represents District 22 in the North Dakota House. Elected in 2016 and 2020, he serves on the House Appropriations Committee and also is involved in his family’s seed business northeast of Casselton.

“I maintain we have the best election process in the United States,” Howe said.

He added: “I want to preserve and protect North Dakota’s election integrity,” and make North Dakota the top state for starting a business.

In the past, Democrats also have alleged that elections were unfair, Howe said. “I think Republicans, Democrats, anyone seeking office should speak out about what are the facts,” he said.

Despite multiple court challenges, Trump failed to prove any election fraud, Howe said. “At some point you have to win a court case” in order to give credence to the allegations, he said.

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The key to restoring public confidence in elections, Howe and Powell agreed, is through education and awareness.

MORE ELECTION 2022:
The case has come to the Supreme Court at a time of heightened concern over U.S. election integrity in light of new voting restrictions pursued by Republican state legislatures.

Howe suggested a possible “election lab” to demonstrate how elections are handled, while Powell said more can be done online. The state has an excellent primer on the election process, but it isn’t engaging, Powell said.

“It is a really terrific document,” he said. “We need to find a way to make that more alive.”

Both candidates agree that more should be done to ease the process of business registrations. The Secretary of State’s Office adopted a one-stop business registration website , but a small number of registrations still are done on paper, a requirement Howe said he would work to eliminate through improved technology if elected.

In his academic administration role, Powell said he works closely with developers on websites, and said a better website would improve both election information and business registration by making the site more user friendly.

The process of getting an initiated measure on the ballot should be reexamined in light of problems that arose in a ballot measure to adopt term limits for the governor and lawmakers that will appear on the November ballot, both candidates agree.

The North Dakota Supreme Court decided the measure should be placed on the ballot in spite of findings by Jaeger’s staff and a judge that there were thousands of invalid signatures and evidence of fraud.

But the justices ruled that Jaeger erred in throwing out all signatures tied to a notary who signed off on petitions with large numbers of invalidated signatures.

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The state needs a “workable law” that doesn’t unduly impose requirements that make it too difficult to get an initiated measure on the ballot, but guards against fraud, Powell said.

“I think there’s a lot in the initiated measure process that needs to be looked at,” he said, including the number of signatures needed to get a measure on the ballot. “I look forward to being involved.”

Policymakers should examine the question of what number of fraudulent signatures would disqualify a petition, Howe said.

“That’s a conversation the Legislature has to have along with the attorney general’s office,” he said.

The secretary of state is elected to a four-year term with yearly compensation of $110,582.

Patrick Springer first joined The Forum in 1985. He covers a wide range of subjects including health care, energy and population trends. Email address: pspringer@forumcomm.com
Phone: 701-367-5294
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