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Secretary of state pushes for harsher petition fraud penalties

BISMARCK -- The 10 North Dakota State University football players charged with petition fraud over phony signatures on two statewide initiated measures last year did not receive harsh enough penalties, according to Secretary of State Al Jaeger.

Each of the players had to serve 360 days of unsupervised probation, complete 50 hours of community service and pay $325 in fees, but the charges were to be taken off their record if all three were completed. Two of the players were given one-year suspended jail sentences due to prior charges.

House Bill 1397, drafted at Jaeger's request, would make the punishment for falsifying names and information on a petition more harsh, raising the current penalty, a Class A misdemeanor -- punishable with a maximum penalty of one year jail time, a $2,000 fine or both -- to a Class C felony, which has a max penalty of five years in jail, a $5,000 fine or both.

"Those are felonies, and here we have it repeated time after time," Jaeger told the House Political Subdivisions Committee. "It is pretty serious."

The players were hired to collect signatures for two statewide ballot initiatives, one to legalize marijuana for medical treatments and the other to create a state conservation fund, but the secretary of state's office noticed names on the petition had wrong zip codes and other indications of fraud.

As a result, the initiatives were thrown out by the secretary's office.

Rep. Patrick Hatlestad, R-Williston, sponsored the bill at Jaeger's behalf and spoke to its intent Thursday morning.

He said the proposed penalty is appropriate for anyone that plans to get around the system in the future.

"A group worked their tail off to put something before the voters and had a small group take that away from them," Hatlestad said. "Disenfranchising voters makes it more serious."

Rep. Kim Koppelman, R-West Fargo, wondered if the bill is a knee-jerk reaction to last year's events and if the bill should address more issues than just fraudulent signatures.

A few chairs down, Rep. Lawrence Klemin, R-Bismarck, said the penalty should also apply to the organizations that are in charge of circulating the petitions, referring to the consulting firm the conservation initiative paid $145,000 to collect petition signatures.

"These people signing names were not unsupervised, someone has to hire them and be responsible for their conduct, those people all have some culpability," he said. "Going out and prosecuting an individual working for an organization is not sending enough of a message."

No action was taken on the bill.

Jaeger also testified in favor of House Bill 1372, which would ensure any petitions submitted to his office are not returned.

"Why not return the petitions," Rep. Kathy Hogan, D-Fargo, asked Jaeger.

"We have to realize, these petitions have thousands of signatures on them." Jaeger said. "If we let them go out and come in, we have no way of knowing what was right, added or changed."

The bill would also clarify the state law and make the two recall petitions easier to understand, Jaeger said. It passed out of committee with 14 members in favor and one absent.

Jaeger said current information provided in recall pamphlets created for groups interested in circulating a petition does not clearly indicate the difference in state law between a one-year petition, which is used for statewide petitions, and 90-day petitions, used for city recall petitions.

The committee also passed to the House chamber the Secretary's office's request to standardize the state's timeframe of collecting absentee ballots after an election.

Currently, ballots received from deployed members of the military must be postmarked before the election and be received from the local county canvassing board by the team it meets shortly after an election.

The problem, not all canvassing boards meet at the same time. The bill proposes every board meet six days after the election, avoiding any confusion and creates a standard time for deployed members.

Jim Silrum, deputy secretary of state, said a uniform date also would help the U.S. Department of Defense, which notifies deployed members about their absentee ballots

The bill passed out of committee with 13 members in favor and two not voting.