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Inquiries prompt Jaeger to make sure election workers are 'on the same page'

FARGO -- In yet another sign of North Dakota's hotly contested U.S. Senate race, the Secretary of State's Office is fielding questions from party officials about the process for having poll challengers and poll checkers at voting sites.

The questions prompted Secretary of State Al Jaeger to email county auditors last week, informing them of balloting rules and that they'll receive several messages before Election Day to address the inquiries "so that all of us are on the same page."

"Naturally, many questions are being prompted by the predicted closeness of the U.S. Senate race," Jaeger wrote. "Without doubt, the eyes of the nation will be on North Dakota. Regardless, I know all of us will rise to the occasion and will have another well run election."

State law has long allowed checkers and challengers at polling places, Jaeger said.

"Probably what's a little bit different this time is that the contact has been made to our office by the various political parties," he said.

Democratic-NPL Party Chairman Greg Hodur sent a letter to Jaeger earlier this month requesting information so volunteers serving as election judges and poll challengers and checkers "clearly understand the established process."

Poll challengers are appointed by their district's party chairman, and up to three are allowed at each polling place. If they feel someone isn't a qualified voter, they can notify the election board, which then decides whether to challenge the voter's qualifications. The board consists of the election inspector, at least two clerks and two election judges, one from each party.

Poll checkers often have a list of party faithful to keep track of who has voted, and they may call and encourage those who haven't voted to do so. Like poll challengers, they aren't allowed to interfere with the election process.

Among the things Hodur asked about in his letter were who can inform challenged voters of their right to vote if they complete an affidavit; what documentation is necessary to establish a person as a qualified voter; and whether auditors and election workers are instructed or trained in "how to handle outside influences at polling locations who are disrupting the voting process."

Hodur also asked Jaeger to share his response with Republican Party officials, which he did.

Hodur said Friday the party's strategy is to place poll checkers and challengers in key precincts, and he assumes Republicans will do the same.

"We're going to try to get people to as many districts as we can, but we have districts we're going to target, and just want to make sure that people who are truly entitled to vote can vote," he said.

The U.S. Senate race between Republican Rick Berg and Democrat Heidi Heitkamp "is not a typical race here in North Dakota," because it has become a focal point that could determine the balance of power in the Senate, Hodur said.

The prospect of the race ending with a recount is "a very good possibility," and it's better to clear up beforehand ambiguities in state law that one side or the other might try to exploit, he said.

Anthony Reedy, executive director of the state GOP, said the party has communicated with Jaeger's office "just to make sure that we're doing everything in accordance with state law."

Asked if Republicans plan to have poll challengers and/or checkers at all polling sites, Reedy said the party was still finalizing its Election Day plans.

"2012 is a unique year for North Dakota elections, and there's a lot on the ballot that's getting a lot of attention," he said. Like Hodur, he cited not only the Senate race but also contested legislative races.

Jaeger applauded the parties for asking questions, which he believes come from their desire not to make a mistake.

"They don't want something to happen that'll blow up in their face," he said.