GRAND FORKS - When North Dakota voters go to the polls Tuesday, they’ll find a ballot containing eight statewide measures, the most in a quarter century.
That’s the same number that was on the ballot in a special election on Dec. 5, 1989.
The Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald banner headline the morning after reflected the voters’ mood:
No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No.
That election, and perhaps that headline itself, served as an exclamation mark for North Dakota in the 1980s, a time of rapid rural depopulation and economic decline. Even then-Gov. George Sinner - father of the current U.S. House candidate of the same name - was referred to in the state Capitol and in the media and as Gov. Gloom and Doom.
While the multiple-measure elections of 1989 and 2014 stand out in recent years, they are neither state records nor anomalies in North Dakota’s history.
North Dakota has had about 470 measures, either through initiated measure or by referral from the Legislature, on the statewide ballot in its history, according to Lloyd Omdahl, a retired the University of North Dakota history professor and former state lieutenant governor.
That’s 47 per decade over the past century.
“California is a winner in this category. They have more measures than North Dakota has,” Omdahl said.
While North Dakota will celebrate its 125th birthday on Sunday, it wasn’t until 1914, at the cusp of the state’s Progressive Party reform movement, that the Legislature amended the state constitution to provide for people to use a petition process to propose amendments.
Since then, most statewide elections have had a mix of ballot issues to either make changes to the state constitution or to change state law, through measures initiated by residents or through the legislative referrals.
In 1918, 10 measures were on the statewide ballot, according to Omdahl. All passed.
The 13 measures on the 1938 primary election ballot stand as the state record.
“The point is, we’ve had an average of four to five measures on the ballot each election,” he said. “The 1930s would take the prize. They had an average of 7.”
“Historically, the Legislature has tried to make it more difficult for citizens to use the initiative and referendum process,” Omdahl said. “The Legislature has never liked it.”
Beginning in 1932, he said, the legislators started increasing the number of signatures it takes to get a measure placed on the ballot.
This year, the legislators switched to substantive argument, Omdahl said. That’s apparent in Measure Four, which, if approved, would prevent people from circulating petitions for measures that would dictate significant state spending.
“This is another attempt to put the brakes on it,” he said.
Over the years, moral issues have been at the heart of many statewide ballot issues.
As an example, this year’s Measure One, the so-called “human life” amendment, is a theologically driven moral issue, he said.
“We’ve had others,” he said. “Over the years, we’ve voted on what you can do on Sundays, on going to the movies, playing baseball on Sundays, on shopping. “
Measures driven by special interest groups also have been common, although they are more difficult to track in the early years, he said.
That was never more true than during a 20-year span in the 1960s and 1970s, when Robert McCarney, a Bismarck car dealer who was dubbed the “referral king,” sponsored nine referrals, five initiated measures and one constitutional amendment. While the subjects varied, most of them were attempts to cut taxes or trim government.
1989 and today
All eight of the measures in 1989 were referrals, laws passed by the Legislature that were referred by residents.
“It’s very different from 1989, because there’s such a variety of issues. In ’89, they were all referrals. They all had been passed by the Legislature and they were all referred.
“This time, it’s a mix of initiated measures and things that the Legislature itself referred, and then there are some constitutional amendments and statutes. So, it’s more of a potpourri this time than it was in ’89,” said Mike Jacobs, who was the Herald editor at the time.
The 1989 referrals, among other things, capped or cut funding for a variety of programs, including public education and higher education.
Jacobs said reaction to the referrals was best summed up at the time by the late University of North Dakota president Tom Clifford.
“I’m really surprised,” he said. “I thought that we would pull the sales tax out. I regret it very much. It’s their state. It’s a voter’s state. And we will have to work with their decisions.”
As a result of the 1989 elections, state spending slowed to a virtual stop in several areas. Teacher salaries dropped to the bottom of national rankings, and the state quit or drastically curtailed spending on infrastructure maintenance.
Teacher salaries did not start to recover, he said, until the 2000s, when then-Gov. John Hoeven initiated a series of reforms.
“Buildings went to hell at various campuses,” he said. “Minard Hall at NDSU is the most notorious example.”
A portion of Minard Hall, a historic building on the NDSU campus, collapsed in 2009.
In addition, two historic buildings on the Mayville State University campus, East and West halls, were demolished because maintenance had been delayed so long they no longer could be salvaged.
“It’s not a direct result, but the state was broke,” he said.
The state is not broke anymore, not since the Bakken Formation oil boom in western North Dakota began less than a decade ago. Today, officials estimate the state’s budget surplus at more than $1.5 billion.
What effect that might have on the voters’ mood on Tuesday is not yet known.
“People are usually pretty discerning,” Omdahl said. “Usually, there’s a split vote, with some passing, some failing. I think this election is going to be that way.”
“In contrast to 1989, North Dakota’s in really good shape,” he said. “North Dakotans are generally more optimistic today than they were in 1989. So, that sort of anxiety that North Dakotans went to the polls with in 1989 is largely absent this year, at least as far as the state is concerned.
“I don’t think we’ll see another headline like we had in 1989.”