North Dakota’s general election ballot has quite a menu of election reform proposals. It is not an a la carte menu. No mix and match. Vote “Yes” and you get them all, soup, salad and slop.
Sponsors of the petition drive to put this proposed amendment on the ballot evidently understood this. They put the most palatable of the proposals first. This would require the secretary of state to deliver ballots to “military-overseas voters” 60 days before any election.
Allegedly, petition carriers emphasized this provision above the others; this suggestion has been made anecdotally and in print. Of course, that does not invalidate any signatures; each of us is responsible for what we sign.
The second suggested reform is straightforward, too, and therefore not too likely to be challenged. This requires a “paper record of each vote cast” and an audit “of one or more randomly selected precincts in each legislative district.”
Are you keeping track? We are two courses into this menu and so far, everything is tasting pretty sweet.
The next course? Maybe not so sweet.
The amendment says, “open primaries shall be used for all primary elections for statewide, legislative assembly and United States congressional offices.” That sounds good, but the measure redefines “open primaries.” For decades, North Dakota has had open primaries in the sense that voters could choose whatever ballot they liked, Democratic, Republican and, more recently, Libertarian. Voters did not have to announce a choice, but the rules allowed votes for candidates of only one party on any one ballot. Violators were not prosecuted, but neither were their votes counted.
This system has come under attack a number of times, most recently in Rob Port’s “Say Anything Blog,” where he argued that only Republicans should have a voice in Republican primary contests. The trouble with that, of course, is that far fewer people vote in primaries, and those who do tend to be the most ideological, so party nominees are often more fervid than party rank-and-file and certainly more than the majority of voters.
The proposed amendment establishes “open primaries” on steroids. All candidates would be listed; each could choose whether to state a party affiliation, and party endorsements could be noted on the ballot.
That is not all, either. The proposed amendment establishes “approval voting,” in which every voter could choose a first, second, third and fourth choice. The four leading vote-getters would advance to the general election ballot, regardless of political affiliation.
There is still more.
Approval voting would become the norm in general elections, too, and “automatic run-offs” would become standard. This would involve eliminating last-place candidates and apportioning ballots to other candidates based on which candidate was listed as second choice, and so on.
This type of ballot was used in Fargo’s city election last month, one of the first time it has been used in a general election.
After a primary, four candidates would advance to the general election ballot; if fewer than four candidates filed, all candidates would advance.
But that is still not all.
The amendment would require that the Ethics Commission, established in 2018, draw legislative district lines – by unanimous vote of the commission’s three members. This gives the commission a clear mission, something that has been lacking.
The amendment establishes that each Senate district would be subdivided into two House districts, for example. You can find other rules at the secretary of state’s website. The gist of it is that districts must be compact, they must not favor one party over another, and the overall redistricting plan must “to the extent practicable … maximize the number of competitive districts.”
The plate, like I suggested, appears to be overloaded.
That jeopardizes the success of legitimate reforms that the amendment suggests. An independent reapportionment commission is a good idea, for a simple reason. Legislators regard reapportionment as pigs regard a mud puddle. They get comfortable with the spot they are in, and they must be prodded to get out.
This is one of three constitutional amendments on the November ballot. The other two were put there by lawmakers. One would increase the size of the Board of Higher Education to 15 members, an unworkable number, and the second would allow legislative review of pending initiated constitutional amendments. Apply the pigs-in-mud metaphor here.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.