An unprecedented shift in the way North Dakotans have always voted is underway, as Executive Order 2020-13, signed by Gov. Doug Burgum on March 26 strongly encouraged counties to utilize voting by mail. But as jurisdictions prepare for a pandemic-riddled election, some confusion has arisen in Dickinson.

According to Stark County Commissioner Carla Arthaud, the idea was never to have mail-in voting be the sole option in the county and her claims that the commission’s vote to adopt mail in voting came with the understanding that that option would be in addition to having a designated in-person polling place at the Henry Biesiot Activities Center.

Much of the confusion centers on a pair of motions passed by the Stark County Commission in its March 25 meeting, prior to the governor’s executive order being issued.

According to the meeting minutes, the first motion called to declare the Biesiot Activities Center as the vote center for Stark County, if needed during the primary election. The discussions centered on the primary election in June to be vote-by-mail with one vote center open. The meeting minutes noted that auditor Kay Haag requested to declare the Biesiot Activities Center the open vote center for Stark County. That motion was made by Commissioner Jay Elkin and seconded by Commissioner Carla Arthaud, before being unanimously carried.

A second motion was then made to authorize the auditor to proceed with a vote-by-mail. The discussions centered on a conference call with the Secretary of State’s Office whereby that office was requesting to have all ND counties vote by mail. According to the minutes, the Secretary of State’s Office would be mailing out all applications, which would need to be returned to the Auditor's Office and the Auditor’s Office would then in return mail out a ballot to residents.

Commissioner Arthaud requested information on if additional assistance would be needed with this process, to which Auditor Haag responded that she had a group of ladies that may be requested to come in to complete the task if they are willing just to open the envelopes. That motion was made by Commissioner Arthaud and seconded by Commissioner Ken Zander, before being unanimously carried.

“The election official, Kay Haag, was asked to put out a statement explaining all of these voting issues for the primary so it’s better understood by the public, unfortunately that hasn’t happened,” Arthaud said. “Instead her office has been telling people it’s up to the commissioners to have an open voting precinct.”

Arthaud continued, “If that’s the case, I’m all for opening one up.”

According to the Stark County State’s Attorney Office, the designation for a polling place was simply provisional and was not going to be used following the governor’s executive order which came a day following the commission meeting.

“Ballots are being mailed out,” Tom Henning, Stark County State’s Attorney, said. “The Executive Order strongly encouraged mail-in voting, and that was adopted by Commissioner Arthaud’s own motion.”

A statement issued by Haag confirmed that all voting in the county for the June primary elections would be done by mail with the message reading, “Election will be done by mail with the ballots to be deposited in the Stark County drop box located in the north parking lot of the Stark County Courthouse or mailed.”

According to Henning, the authority of the mail-in ballot process comes from the executive order and by virtue of the authority under Article V, Section 1 of the North Dakota Constitution and North Dakota Century Code 37-17.1, and was upheld in commission meetings.

Concerns across North Dakota and the United States over mail-in voting have increased as the threat of a financial crisis in the U.S. Postal Service looms over that alternative to in-person voting.

The Postal Service publicly announced earlier this month that if Congress does not pass a $75 billion bailout, their uninterrupted mail service will not last, which could hamper local election officials’ ability to send out mail-in absentee ballots, letters with polling place information, voting booklets, new voter cards and federally mandated voter registration confirmation postcards.

The history of mail service concerns on the Western Edge were widely reported across the state as Postal Service spokespeople said they were investigating irregularities in mail delivery service in Dickinson, after it was discovered that some mail and newspapers were thrown in dumpsters behind the post office.

As this issue continues to unfold, it appears that mail-in voting will be the only form of voting for the June 9 elections unless a special meeting were to be called and a vote to allow in-person voting passed.

For more information on the June 9 elections, visit vote.nd.gov.