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Group claims signatures for conservation measure gathered illegally at polling sites

FNS Photo by Eric Hylden Jessica Mongeon of Grand Forks collects signatures Tuesday for a proposed Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment outside the Alerus Center in Grand Forks as voters leave the polling site.

BISMARCK – A group opposing a proposed measure that would set aside millions of dollars in North Dakota oil tax revenue to create a conservation fund claims the petition’s sponsors had people illegally gathering signatures at polling places Tuesday -- a claim the head of the sponsoring committee denied.

Jon Godfread, chairman of the opposition group North Dakotans for Common Sense Conservation, said signature gatherers for the proposed Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment were stationed outside entrances of voting locations at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks and at Horizon Middle School in north Bismarck.

North Dakota law prohibits signature gatherers from approaching people while they are in a polling place or trying to enter or leave a polling place. The ban applies within 100 feet of any entrance leading into a polling place while it’s open for voting. Violating the law is a Class A misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $3,000 fine.

Godfread said he observed the signature gatherer outside Horizon Middle School.

“I didn’t get out a tape measure to see if they were 100 feet away or not, but if you look at the spirit of the law, there was kind of a bottleneck there. I think it was kind of tough for voters to avoid that,” he said.

Stephen Adair of Bismarck, chairman of the petition’s sponsoring committee, said its legal team looked into the law beforehand and all signature gatherers were instructed to be 100 feet or more away from the polling sites and to not talk to people until after they voted.

“We don’t have any indication that people did not follow those instructions. They were told to be as careful as they could be. They checked in with election officials at all the sites they were with to make sure they were comfortable where they were,” he said. “We kind of feel like this is a little bit of the other side trying to bully some of our volunteers that are out there gathering signatures.”

Godfread, vice president of government affairs for the Greater North Dakota Chamber, one of 30 groups opposing the proposed measure, said the coalition plans to file a complaint with the state’s attorney in Grand Forks County and has also reached out to the North Dakota secretary of state’s office and Burleigh County auditor’s office.

“We will certainly be following up as we move forward,” he said.

The petition’s sponsors need to collect at least 26,904 valid petition signatures by Aug. 6 to get the measure on the Nov. 4 ballot. Conservation groups supporting the proposed measure include Ducks Unlimited, the Audubon Society, Pheasants Forever and The National Wildlife Federation.

Signature gatherer Jessica Mongeon, a Grand Forks resident, said she'd been at the Alerus Center entrance since 7 a.m. At around 3 p.m., she said she had collected about 75 signatures. A polling judge at the Alerus Center was brought in to make sure she was set up at least 100 feet away from the building.

"We needed more signatures to get on the ballot for the November elections,” she said. “There are a lot of qualified voters here today to get our support. A lot of people have been positive, but there's been a few negatives. If anyone asks us to leave, we will. We're not interfering with people voting. We're just trying to get this on the ballot."

Godfread said the signature gathering was reminiscent of sponsors’ efforts two years ago, when their petition was rejected by the secretary of state’s office because it contained faked signatures collected by paid signature gatherers.

Adair said the opposition group was “grasping at straws.”

“That was certainly an unfortunate thing, and we’ve learned a lot from that,” he said. “Our people are very well coached and trained out there, and we’re doing all we can to be within the letter of the law.”

As proposed, the conservation fund would annually receive 5 percent of the state’s share of oil extraction tax revenue. Ten percent of the annual revenues would go into a trust, and the other 90 percent would be used to award grants for conservation projects, land acquisition for parks and outdoor education. At least 75 percent of the revenue would have to be spent every two years.

The two sides disagree on how much money the fund would receive, with supporters projecting $75 million to $100 million per year and the opposition group estimating $150 million to $200 million annually based on projected oil production rates.

Figures provided by the state Office of Management and Budget in February show that had the fund been in place for the 2013-15 biennium, it would have collected about $147 million, based on tax collections at that time and projections for the remainder of the two-year budget cycle.

Forum News Service reporter Trent Opstedahl contributed to this article.

Mike Nowatzki

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