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County auditors oppose bill from Bismarck legislators on polling places

Former Burleigh County Commissioner Doug Schonert testifies at the Capitol on Friday against House Bill 1270, which relates to establishing or changing precinct boundaries and polling places. Will Kincaid / Bismarck Tribune

BISMARCK -- County auditors spoke in opposition Friday, Jan. 25, to a bill sponsored by several Bismarck lawmakers that would require political party leaders to consent to changing voting locations.

House Bill 1270 was prompted by a disagreement between Burleigh County officials and Bismarck legislators over reducing the number of polling places and establishing universal vote centers.

Rep. Lawrence Klemin, the primary sponsor of the bill, told the House Political Subdivisions Committee his proposal aims to require meaningful consultation when a county commission considers changing precinct boundaries or polling places.

“We are all in this together. We represent the same constituency. We need to work together and collaborate on this matter to better serve the voters and the residents of our state,” said Klemin, R-Bismarck.

Former Burleigh County Commissioner Doug Schonert told legislators he agrees there should be consultation. But he objects to a provision in the bill that would require county commissioners to get the consent of a majority of legislative district party chairmen before changing polling places.

“I don’t think that's proper,” Schonert said, adding that party chairmen are not elected officials.

County auditors consider the proposal a “bad bill,” said Donnell Preskey, executive director for the North Dakota County Auditors and County Treasurers Association.

“This proposal erodes the counties’ decision-making ability. It will usurp local authority and control and provides legislators with veto power that ultimately would have them dictating this county responsibility,” Preskey testified.

Klemin emphasized that the bill does not require consent from legislators, but a majority of district party chairmen, making it bipartisan.

Rep. Mary Johnson, R-Fargo, questioned what happens if changes are proposed to a polling place in one district and the two party chairmen can’t agree.

“Do you not see the possibility of a quagmire?” Johnson asked.

The Burleigh County Commission voted 3-2 in 2017 to eliminate about half of its polling sites and operate universal Election Day vote centers, allowing people to vote at the location most convenient to them. Commissioners later rescinded the vote after a legal opinion showed they did not have permission from the city of Bismarck to change precinct boundaries within the city.

Bismarck legislators were unanimously opposed to the move and said they weren’t adequately consulted. If the bill is approved, at least six of the 10 district party chairmen in Bismarck would have to consent to such changes.

“We do not want to discourage voters from going to the polls to vote by making access to voting more difficult or more restrictive,” Klemin told committee members.

Bill Wocken, lobbyist for the North Dakota League of Cities, testified in support of the bill, saying it would strengthen consultation when changes are considered to voting locations.

Schonert, one of the commissioners who voted for the universal voting centers, said the decision aimed to increase voter turnout by allowing people to vote near where they work or wherever is most convenient.

Auditors across the state are struggling with aging voting equipment, and reducing the number of polling places is one way they’re coping, according to Preskey. Auditors from Cass County and McKenzie County also testified against the bill. The committee didn’t take immediate action.