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Fairfield comes out swinging in secretary of state’s race: Democratic-NPL hopeful blasts Jaeger for voter ID law, office hours

BISMARCK — Former state lawmaker April Fairfield fired a barrage of criticism at North Dakota Secretary of State Al Jaeger on Tuesday as she announced her candidacy for the office, saying the Republican’s 22-year record “has been one of incompetence and mismanagement.”

Fairfield, a Democrat from Bismarck, said the most recent example has been Jaeger’s handling of the new voter ID law approved by GOP lawmakers last spring that requires voters to bring an acceptable form of ID showing their current address and birth date to the polls.

The law, which Republicans said would help eliminate voter fraud, removed the option of voting by affidavit. North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party Chairman Bob Valeu has since called it one of the most egregious voter ID laws in the nation and warned it could disenfranchise voters.

Fairfield slammed Jaeger for promulgating confusing rules for the new law and for not using the bully pulpit of his office, saying the new law speaks to his relationship with the GOP-controlled Legislature.

“As a secretary of state, you need to stand firm and say ‘listen, this is the way it has to be and this is how we protect the integrity of the voting process in North Dakota,’” she said.

She also blasted Jaeger for waiting eight months after the bill became law to launch a $700,000 educational campaign themed “Voting in North Dakota: Easy as Pie,” which Jaeger unveiled last week, shortly after local elections were held in Watford City and Fargo.

Fairfield said there’s been anecdotal evidence of people being turned away from the polls in Fargo, but Jaeger said last week that his office received only a couple of calls from voters accustomed to using other forms of ID and that “it was not significant.”

“The problem is that voting in North Dakota was easy. Now, it’s convoluted and it’s flawed, and it’s nothing that cartoon pie graphics will fix,” Fairfield said.

In response, Jaeger said Wednesday that the three voter ID bills put forth by legislators last session were “unworkable” as introduced, and that he worked with lawmakers on the legislation.

“The bills were introduced and we worked with the lawmakers to make sure that it was a good law,” he said, adding North Dakota has “an excellent track record” when it comes to elections.

Fairfield also criticized Jaeger for his controversial decision in April 2012 to shorten his office hours by three hours, to 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., to give his staff uninterrupted time to process business registrations and contractor license applications. At Jaeger’s request, the Legislature’s Budget Section approved three full-time equivalent positions, and the office returned to its regular hours of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. by September 2012.

“You know what else should be easy as pie? Walking into the secretary of state’s office during normal business hours and finding the place open for business,” Fairfield said.

Jaeger defended his decision Wednesday, calling it “one of the smartest things that I’ve ever done in this office.”

“We were inundated with work, and because we shortened the hours, the staff was able to provide the services that were needed in fairness to everybody,” he said.

Jaeger said he has a “very dedicated, hardworking staff,” and he took exception to what Fairfield characterized in a news release as a “culture of incompetence that is plaguing the office.”

“To me, that is a direct attack on my staff, and I find that sad that somebody for political reasons would feel the need to attack staff in that particular manner,” Jaeger said.

Fairfield also criticized Jaeger’s handling of a software project and ballot measures. Jaeger called the attacks “inaccurate” and “political rhetoric” undeserving of a response.

Fairfield touted her 10 years of service as a state lawmaker and 20 years of experience working in public policy and advocacy as qualifications for the job.

She lived in Eldridge, west of Jamestown, when she served in the House from 1996 to 2002. She was elected to the Senate in 2002, defeating incumbent Terry Wanzek. She decided not to seek re-election in 2006, and Wanzek won the seat back.

Fairfield and her husband, Steve DeLap, and daughter, Kennedy, moved to Bismarck in 2007, where she currently works as executive director of the nonprofit Head Injury Association of North Dakota. She was the first legislator in state history to give birth during a session when Kennedy was born in March 2001.

Her entrance into the secretary of state’s race gives the Dem-NPL Party a full slate of statewide candidates to consider for endorsement at the party’s state convention Friday and Saturday at the Fargo Civic Center.

Jaeger is seeking the Republican endorsement at the GOP state convention April 4-6 in Minot. He was a self-employed real estate broker for about 20 years before being elected in 1992.

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.