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Sudden death of North Dakota candidate raises questions about election

After Republican candidate David Andahl died unexpectedly from COVID-19 on Monday, it is too late to remove his name from the November ballot. The state is extrapolating laws to determine what to do if he wins.

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Dave Andahl. Special to The Forum

BISMARCK — After a Republican candidate for the North Dakota Legislature unexpectedly died from COVID-19 on Monday, Oct. 5, the future for a contested District 8 seat in the Statehouse is up in the air.

Early voting was well underway in North Dakota when David Andahl, a Republican candidate for the North Dakota House of Representatives, died after a short bout with coronavirus.

Secretary of State Al Jaeger said it is too late to replace Andahl's name on the November ballot, but his office examined the books on Tuesday to determine the protocol in case the candidate picks up enough votes on Nov. 3 to win one of the contested House seats in his district.

"All votes cast for him will be counted," Jaeger said, explaining that an Andahl win would be treated like a more routine vacancy following the retirement or death of a sitting lawmaker. "If he is one of the two individuals that receives the most votes in that legislative race, he would be considered elected and then a vacancy would happen."

If a vacancy is declared in District 8, Jaeger said, officials from the district chapter of the Republican Party would then have the option to fill the spot with whomever they see fit.

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"State law allows the political party then to make that appointment," Jaeger said.

But Jaeger, who has held his position as North Dakota's secretary of state since 1993, said he doesn't recall anything like this happening before.

As basis for his decision, he pointed to the laws regarding a vacancy in the office of a member of the legislative assembly, which state the district committee should hold a meeting within 21 days of an announced vacancy to "select an individual to fill the vacancy."

Republican candidate Dave Nehring and Democratic candidates Linda Babb and Kathrin Volochenko also appear on the ballot for the District 8 seat. Alex Rohr, a spokesperson for the state Democratic Party, said his party has not made any plans to address the changes in the District 8 race and expressed condolences for the Andahl family.

According to the state's protocol, the final decision on a potential vacancy in District 8 would be left up to local party officials. Loren DeWitz, the chair of the district's Republican Party, said any dues-paying member of District 8 would be eligible to fill the spot, adding his district's bylaws "are very specific" about the procedures required to address a vacancy, calling for a new appointment determined by a secret ballot by members of the district's executive committee.

While the protocol for a more routine vacancy is well-established, DeWitz noted, the precise application of the rules in the wake of a candidate's death are not so clear.

"We're looking at the law and trying to figure out how to apply it when it's not really addressed," he said.

Republican state officials said they are not looking to move quickly to form a plan of action in the case of an Andahl win, but Republican Party Chairman Rick Berg said the party is encouraging residents in District 8 to cast their votes for the two Republicans on the ballot, Andahl and Nehring.

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The party would sort out how to fill a vacancy if and when it happens, he said.

Movements to fill a vacant seat in District 8 also have the potential to dredge up some intra-party divisions for the Republicans. Andahl and Nehring gained statewide prominence when they teamed up for a primary challenge against the powerful House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jeff Delzer, R-Underwood, and their candidacies overtook the veteran conservative in part thanks to a financial assist from Gov. Doug Burgum's Dakota Leadership PAC, which targeted District 8 in an effort to unseat Delzer.

A vacancy in District 8 could give Delzer's allies a chance to keep his influential seat in the legislature even after he lost his primary election.

"People want those values and that type of person," Berg said, noting the final call on the appointment would be up to the district chapter of the Republican Party. "But certainly, Rep. Delzer, if he's interested, he would be a likely candidate."

Berg added that once a vacancy was declared, the district party would move quickly to appoint a new person to the seat before the start of the legislative session in January.

"So day one, they'd have someone in there," he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at awillis@forumcomm.com.

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