North Dakota's top election official says the wording on a Dickinson ballot item could lead to contested results in the June 9 primaries.

In North Dakota, important policy decisions are often made through “direct democracy” rather than by elected representatives. Through ballot initiatives and statewide votes, citizens from Dickinson regularly decide on issues ranging from legalizing marijuana to regulating workers’ sick leave.

Every two years, North Dakota Century Code Section 15.1-09-31 requires that school districts ask their citizens whether or not they want their district to continue to publish school board minutes in the newspaper of record.

The Dickinson Public School district submits a ballot with the required question, and each election cycle citizens vote on whether to continue publishing the minutes in the newspaper of record, The Dickinson Press.

This year, however, the ballot included the following additional wording: “Dickinson Public Schools has been publishing the Board meeting minutes in the official newspaper at a significant cost to the taxpayers. Additionally, Dickinson Public Schools has been posting the meeting minutes on the District’s website and will continue to post them. // As a taxpayer, do you wish Dickinson Public Schools to publish the School Board meeting minutes in the official newspaper of the school district?”

North Dakota Secretary of State Al Jaeger addressed the current situation, saying that the matter could result in contested election.

“I doubt that is acceptable wording. It is supposed to be neutral. I think there might be a law or attorney general ruling about it,” Jaeger said. “I am surprised that it wasn’t discovered until now. The school had to submit them to the county auditor or the school board to approve the wording prior to April 6.”

In 2002, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem wrote an opinion on the legality of a similar issue concerning “extraneous or surplus language appearing on some city and school district election ballots.” In this case, the ballot had included the cost to publish the minutes.

In the opinion, he references 42 American Jurisprudence 2d Initiative and Referendum § 21 which states that “the summary of an initiated measure generally must be clear, concise, and a true and impartial statement as to the intent of the proposed law; not an argument, nor likely to create prejudice for or against the measure.”

Stenehjem argued that the estimated costs of publishing the minutes, when added to the ballot, could sway voters one way or the other.

Regardless of the motive behind ballot wording, Stenehjem wrote, “While presumably the school district or city officials who placed the estimated costs of publication on the ballots...would assert that they were only trying to fully inform the voters on the ballot measure and not trying to improperly influence them, many of the voters are likewise taxpayers who may be less inclined to vote for publication if reminded in the voting booth of the estimated costs involved.”

Regardless of intent, Stenehjem thus concluded that wording “such as the estimated costs of publication on the ballot and that it is improper for a city or a school district to include them.”

While the verbiage in this current matter did not include any costs, it did include the opinion that it was a “significant cost to the taxpayers” which could be viewed as framing the argument with an implicit bias.

Superintendent Shon Hocker said the district’s intent was never to influence how voters voted; rather, it was an attempt to inform.

“We by no means are intending to try to sway anybody. The point was to share out that it’s not free,” he said.

Hocker said the issue came up during a conversation with community members who were not aware of a cost associated with publishing school board meeting minutes in the newspaper.

“This was a community group that asked that question,” he said. “We thought this was all free, so if it’s not free, we need to tell people that it’s not free … That’s really what drove the necessity to not ask such a generic question … but to provide more details so people could make an educated decision on a ballot.”

The district didn’t include the total amount it spends on publishing the minutes because the costs of doing so vary each month depending on the amount of legal notices filed.

“It all obviously depends on how big the minutes are and how big the space it requires you guys to put in the paper … Back to keeping the ballot relatively minimal, I couldn’t list in there ‘Here’s the last 12 months of expenses,” Hocker said.

Currently the State of North Dakota’s Management and Budget office regulates prices for legal notices published in newspapers across the state.

According to Amy Cannon, procurement officer at Management and Budget, the costs are set at $0.84 per line.

To avoid misleading the public by listing any amount, the district chose instead to use the words “significant cost.” Looking back, Hocker said he can now see how the imprecise nature of the word “significant” could be understood to mean different things.

“The word ‘significant,’ I can see, over the weekend, how some might be interpreting that to mean millions of dollars, whereas maybe to someone else, ‘significant’ is $100,” he said. “I could see how there could be some flexibility in the definition of ‘significant,’ so I will absolutely admit that … The intent behind it was to simply share out that it’s not free.”

Hocker said he thought that if there was a problem with the wording, his office would be contacted by the election official with some guidance on the matter.

“If there were any inappropriateness of the question or anything, I would have thought my local elections official would have called up and said, ‘Hey, this isn’t good.’ That didn’t happen,” Hocker said.

Speaking with The Press on the matter, Stark County Election Official Kay Haag addressed ballot measures at the local level.

“I just learned of the issue this morning and the way it works is that (political subdivisions) submit the measure to me and I just copy and paste it so that I don’t misspell or change what they submitted to me. Then I return it to them and they sign off that it is what they want,” Haag said.