At the Dickinson Area Chamber of Commerce’s 2020 Virtual Candidate Forum held Thursday, May 21, candidates for Stark County Commission, mayor of Dickinson and governor of North Dakota were unanimous in their displeasure with the mail-in voting only options for the June 9 primary elections.
Voting in North Dakota’s June 9 primary election is scheduled to be conducted by mail only with no open polling places being made available due to safety concerns related to the coronavirus pandemic.
An executive order issued by North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum on March 26 strongly recommended, but did not order, that counties conduct Vote by Mail and the order suspended the requirement that counties have at least one physical polling location. Burgham later stated on Friday, May 15, that cities in North Dakota could proceed with in-person voting polls.
Burgum’s spokesman Mike Nowatzki later said that the governor wanted to provide counties the authority and option of having open polling places.
"The bottom line is the governor wanted to provide flexibility to the counties to decide if they wanted to do mail-ballot-only elections based on their individual circumstances," Nowatzki said.
Burgum addressed the state’s risk level saying it was “moderate.”
“Earlier in this crisis we were in the high risk category because we didn’t have all the capabilities and skill sets that we talked about in terms of the test trace isolate capabilities, so we were in the high because we were unsure about our healthcare capacity. We’ve really taken care of that and we know that we’ve got plenty of healthcare capacity,” Burgum said. “Other states in the nation were in that critical category and the good news for North Dakota is that when we look at the criteria we were never in that spot. We were never out of healthcare capacity, we were never out of ICU beds, we were never out of ventilators, we were never in that risk spot.”
At the candidate forum on Thursday, Stark County Commission candidates Pete Kuntz, Bernie Marsh, Leslie Ross, and Neal Messer as well as Mayor Scott Decker and gubernatorial candidate Michael Coachman were critical of the decision to have mail-in voting only in Stark County — which has had 21 cases of coronavirus in the past 30 days in a population of more than 34,000.
When asked whether the candidates supported mail-in voting as the only option for this election cycle, Ross called it a disenfranchisement of voters and said that she absolutely did not support the decision.
“I believe that the vote was taken at the County Commission meeting and it was to have the [Henry Biesiot Activities Center] be the place for the one open polling place and I believe that we could have done that safely,” she said. “You could do social distancing and you could bring in the Southwest District Health Unit to make sure we can actually have a polling place. That is how the vote was, I’m not quite sure what happened that denied Stark County of our one polling place.”
Ross added, “They voted to have mail-in ballots but they also had a vote for the BAC so, I don’t support the decision and I believe that this disenfranchises voters...I talked to someone just today that has not even received the request to mail in their application. So how many are there that are not going to have an opportunity to vote?”
Messer said he wasn’t sure where the breakdown in communication occurred between the action items voted by the County Commission and how the election officer decided to run the primaries.
“I’m a full fledged believer in retail politics, I love face to face politics and I want to get out and meet people, and I firmly believe and agree that we would have been able to handle the polling place if it went to the BAC,” he said. “I mean if we can go to Wal-Mart and social distance, we should be able to go to a polling place.”
Kuntz, who is the sitting chair of the County Commission and running to keep his seat this election, said that he does not support having mail-in voting be the only option this election cycle and said that the breakdown in communication was unattributable.
“We had a place reserved,” he said. “I don’t know whose fault it is.”
Marsh echoed the other candidates saying that he did not support the mail-in only option and argued that there should be a physical voting place, even citing the Century Code.
“I really believe that if people can stand in lines at Wal-Mart and Menards and not worry about social distancing, then why?” he said. “One of the main things when I was out in the community putting up signs was that this decision was a major concern and disappointment that they couldn’t do that, and they really believe that the county could have set something up.”
Marsh added, “This is voting. This is what our country was established on.”
During the mayoral portion of the Candidate Forum, Mayor Scott Decker was succinct in his disapproval of the mail-in only option.
“It’s very simple, I do not [support it],” he said. “I think people have the right to go to the polls and vote. Everybody knows the risk, the opportunity to get your mail-in ballot would still be there and [voters] could do it if they felt that they would be at risk because of their health situation or whatever. We need to have the ballot boxes open, this is a free country and we need to have a vote.”
Decker added, “I’m disappointed that ultimately that was the decision that was made, but we live in uncertain times right now, and I just wish they would have given the option that if you wanted to show up and wanted to vote, that’s your option.”
In the gubernatorial portion of the forum, Michael Coachman said the decision for mail-in only voting was illegal and called the decision on opening polls the most important decision right now.
“I contacted the governor's office a couple of weeks ago and said, ‘We can still move the voting to the 9th, 10th and 11th and make it three days’ and we could have A-F on Monday, and continue through the rest of the week. We could provide masks, we could provide pencils, clean up after them. We should have voting in person,” he said. “We still can have open polls because last week President Trump mentioned, with our governor there, that in California they set up a booth three days before the election. If they did it, we can still do it too.”
Coachman ended the debate holding up a copy of the United States Constitution and asked voters if the executive orders issued by the governor were constitutional in the first place.
“Where is he getting his information from, who are the people around him? What executive orders did he pass that were not constitutional, he got caught...but what about the things he hasn’t been caught on. We need to stand up and say that we need a voting booth, we want to vote. If that means to scratch all the mail-in ballots, we still need to vote to be honest and fair.”
Without a special meeting called by the Stark County Commission, the voting process will continue as a mail-in voting only for the June 9 primaries.
The North Dakota Secretary of State’s Office has mailed 600,000 ballot applications to potential voters and applications are available to be downloaded and printed at vote.nd.gov. Voters should mail completed applications to their county auditor and once a voter’s application is received, a ballot will be mailed to the voter.