Port: Expect elected leaders to lead, not punt

Rev. Christina Martin of Mandan's First Lutheran Church (right) sits among Burleigh County residents in favor of allowing new refugee resettlements at a county commission meeting in Bismarck on Dec. 9, 2019. Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service
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MINOT, N.D. — I was very gratified to see that a majority of Burleigh County Commissioners opted not to send the question of refugee resettlement to voters .

The county commission voted 3-2 late last year to continue resettlement, though they capped it at no more than 25 per year and are requiring a report on the costs of resettlement later this year in September. The county took up the issue, as did communities around the country, thanks to an executive order from the Trump administration giving state and local governments a veto over resettlement.

Burleigh County made national headlines weeks ago as potentially the first community to say no to resettlement, and though they eschewed that particular outcome, they made headlines again of late thanks to a push to send the issue to voters.

Again, I'm glad they didn't.

That statement will likely set off howling from the populist crowd who have a fetish for direct democracy and want every question of public policy settled through a general vote.


These folks talk cynical about trusting elected officials, and beat their chests about the wisdom of the masses, as if a ready rebuttal to that misguided conclusion weren't at hand in the almost ubiquitous dim-witted ranting of the masses on platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

The people, I hate to tell you, are fickle and ill-informed and prone to letting emotion and recency bias dictate their votes.

Besides, if we're just going to put every issue on the ballot, why even bother with electing people like county commissioners?

Also, why let elected officials off the hook by putting issues on the ballot?

The Burleigh County vote was controversial. For some, anyway. Personally, I thought it came out the right way, but if you disagree why would you want to put the issue on the ballot as opposed to holding the commissioners themselves responsible?

In North Dakota, most elected officials can be recalled through a process laid out in state law . If the citizens of Burleigh County are really that upset with the outcome of the refugee vote, let them get organized and recall the offending commissioners to the ballot.

Alternatively, they could recruit candidates and challenge the sitting commissioners in the next regular election.

Either way, the refugee decision shouldn't be on the ballot. Just those who made it.


Again, the ballot box is a poor place to make policy decisions.

It is not a good thing to pass what is often complicated pieces of legislation, with far-reaching consequences and ramifications, through the initiated measure process. Nor is it good to let elected leaders shuck responsibility for their governing decisions by punting the issue to the ballot.

We elected people to lead. Let them lead, and if they lead the wrong way, hold them accountable through the electoral process.

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Rob Port, founder of, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Listen to his Plain Talk Podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RobPort.

Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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