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N.D. voters approve earlier deadline for filing initiated petition signatures

By Mike Nowatzki

Forum News Service

BISMARCK — North Dakota Secretary of State Al Jaeger said a ballot measure approved by voters Tuesday that sets an earlier deadline for filing initiated petition signatures will strengthen the process for citizens trying to change state law or the constitution through the ballot box.

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With almost 97 percent of precincts reporting, 53 percent of voters supported Measure 1 and 47 percent opposed it. There were 40,951 votes in favor of the measure and 36,155 votes against it with 413 of 427 precincts reporting.

The constitutional amendment was the lone statewide measure on Tuesday’s ballot.

It will change the filing deadline for petition signatures from 90 days to 120 days before a statewide election. Petition sponsors will still have one year to collect signatures as they do now.

Jaeger advocated for the change as a way to provide more time for petition challenges and review, while opponents of the measure — including his Democratic opponent in the November election, April Fairfield — criticized it as unnecessary and an attempt to discourage voter-initiated measures.

Jaeger said he was pleased with the vote results.

“It’ll really make the integrity of the process much stronger, and that’s what I was concerned about from the beginning,” he said.

Jaeger pitched the proposal last year to state lawmakers, who approved a resolution to put it on the ballot. He said moving up the filing deadline by 30 days would give petition sponsors at least 10 days to challenge the secretary of state’s rulings on their petitions and allow the North Dakota Supreme Court 20 days to hear such appeals and render a “reasoned” judgment.

Under current state law, the secretary of state’s office has 35 days to review a petition to determine if it has enough valid signatures to be placed on the ballot. The end of that review period butts up against the law’s requirement that the ballot must be certified 55 days before the election, which Jaeger said could potentially leave no time for justices to review a challenge before the ballot is certified.

Fairfield and Dustin Gawrylow, managing director of the conservative North Dakota Watchdog Network, called the measure a solution searching for a problem and said moving up the filing deadline by 30 days would make it harder for sponsors to collect signatures at the North Dakota State Fair in Minot during the last half of July.

Fairfield said Tuesday night that it was a close vote and she respects the voters’ decision but worries there may have been confusion over the measure’s wording.

“I have a bit of concern about that, that people may have thought that they were enhancing the initiated measure process rather than restricting it,” she said.

Fairfield has said she believed the measure’s intent was to narrow the window of opportunity to gather petition signatures.

Jaeger said the intent was to keep a potentially fraudulent petition from making the ballot, which he said almost happened in 2012 with a conservation measure that was disqualified from the ballot because of signatures faked by hired petition circulators.

“My position is if you know there’s going to be possibility of a problem, you head it off by taking corrective action ahead of time,” he said Tuesday.

North Dakota had a 120-day filing deadline from 1919 to 1978, when voters approved shortening it to 90 days.

The new 120-day deadline becomes effective Jan. 1. It won’t affect the four petitions currently in circulation, Jaeger said.

Mike Nowatzki

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