BISMARCK — A new lawsuit calls into question the North Dakota residency of a Republican lawmaker, in a bid that threatens to wipe him from the November ballot and clear a road for Democratic opponents in his district.
The legal challenge, filed to the North Dakota Supreme Court on Thursday, Sept. 17, alleges that Secretary of State Al Jaeger improperly included Rep. Terry Jones, R-New Town, on this year's general election ballot for House District 4, arguing that he's an ineligible candidate because he's actually a Wyoming resident. The lawsuit comes from the district's Democratic Party chair, Kenton Onstad, whom Jones unseated in 2016.
The new case follows a North Dakota Supreme Court ruling from last month that disqualified a Democratic candidate for statewide office on the grounds that she was a Nevada resident. The court's decision in that case set a precedent that may leave Jones' candidacy on shaky ground.
As of the filing of the lawsuit, Jones is the registered agent for his family business Jones Brothers Enterprises LLC, and company filings from earlier this year state Jones' address as 203 2nd St., Otto, Wyo. The lawsuit also points to Jones' Wyoming cellphone area code and his New Town P.O. box, both listed with his biography on the North Dakota Legislature's website, as evidence that he is not a North Dakota resident under state law.
"Jones is showing a flagrant disregard for North Dakota’s Constitution and the people who live in District 4, which includes the Fort Berthold Reservation," wrote Kylie Oversen, chair of the Democratic-NPL Party, in a statement released Thursday. "His name should be stricken from the ballot, so voters can elect someone to pass North Dakota laws who is actually willing to follow them."
There are two Democratic candidates vying for Jones' seat in the North Dakota House this year, Hunter Andes and Thomasina Mandan, a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa Arikara Nation. The removal of Jones from the ballot would clear a route for a new Democratic seat in the Legislature.
In an interview, Jones adamantly defended his North Dakota residency. "I split my time between the work that I do up here in North Dakota and the work I have there (in Wyoming), and it does not affect the fact that I've been a North Dakota citizen now for, I don't know how many years," Jones said. "I'm definitely a North Dakota resident. It's a big nothing-burger that they're chasing on there."
Jones explained that he moved to western North Dakota for work in the oil industry around Christmas of 2011 and now splits his time between two residences, one in New Town and the other in Otto, where he was born and raised. Jones also stressed that he spends the bulk of his time in North Dakota, and that he has been voting in North Dakota elections for at least six years. Legislative candidates must live in North Dakota for a year before the election, according to state law.
Last month, the North Dakota Supreme Court ruled on a similar dispute, in which the justices found that Travisia Martin, a Democratic candidate for insurance commissioner, was not eligible for the ballot in the upcoming election. North Dakota law requires five years of residency in the state before a resident can run for insurance commissioner, and while Martin said she moved to North Dakota in 2015, she also owns a home in Nevada and cast a ballot there in the 2016 election.
North Dakota Democrats fought to keep Martin's name on the upcoming ballot, but Alex Rohr, a spokesperson for the party, said the supreme court's decision in that case prompted similar action against Jones.
"It's something that has been percolating around," Rohr said of Jones' disputed residency. "But the supreme court showed a pretty clear path on how they think it should work, and that propelled motion on it."
Jones said he learned of the impending lawsuit earlier this week and had his son, Bryce Jones, file paperwork in Wyoming to replace him as the registered agent on the family business.
"It's definitely an oversight on my part to have still been the registered agent," said Jones, arguing that the registered agent question is between him and the state of Wyoming, and has no bearing on his North Dakota candidacy.
"It was an oversight that I think would be understandable to anyone who understands business, and we remedied it. There was no ill-intent," he said.
Readers can reach reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at firstname.lastname@example.org.