BISMARCK — A massive North Dakota elections package that now awaits the signature of Gov. Doug Burgum contains a provision that would put a 30-minute time limit on casting a ballot at a polling place.
The 83-page House Bill 1253, a sweeping elections proposal, received broad support in both the North Dakota House and Senate in the final days of this year’s legislative session after it was brought on behalf of the Secretary of State’s Office to refine and modernize election administration procedures. Officials say the bill’s 30-minute voting rule is more of a guideline, but some lawmakers criticized it as a strategic restriction that could limit turnout for non-white populations and create unintended hurdles for disabled voters.
Deputy Secretary of State Jim Silrum said concerns over the time limit are "much ado about nothing," and added that, while the language of the provision is explicit, he does not foresee it being enforced to the letter of the law.
“This 30-minute rule is not intended to be a hammer on voters,” said Silrum, a Republican, who explained the provision as a tool to prevent backed-up polling lines that could themselves be disenfranchising. Silrum added that the Secretary of State's Office will be clear to local election officials that the time limit should not be used to stop any voter, barring an extraordinary circumstance where one or multiple people are intentionally holding up a polling center.
"We would not look favorably on any overzealous poll worker" who used it as a hard cut-off for voters, he said.
But some lawmakers on the other side of the aisle see the wording of the rule as intentionally ambiguous.
“Why are we pushing laws that sometimes we’re going to enforce and sometimes we’re not?” said House Minority Leader Josh Boschee, of Fargo. Boschee, who ran as the Democratic nominee for secretary of state in 2018, noted that haziness around the application of the provision could mean that the rule is enforced differently in red counties than in Cass County, "where there’s a lot of Democratic voters who have a different skin color than me."
Both Silrum and the bill’s lead sponsor, Minot Republican Rep. Scott Louser, said the rule was added in response to a recurrent situation in Minot’s Ward County, where a single person has held up several recent elections by showing up to the polls just before closing time and refusing to fill out their ballot.
Another Minot Republican, Rep. Dan Ruby, introduced a single bill to respond to the same situation. That bill was killed in the House because of the redundancy with Louser’s bill.
An existing North Dakota statute says a voter cannot take "longer than necessary" to fill out a ballot in a polling booth, though there is currently no hard stop on the books. North Dakota law also holds that a voter will be allowed to cast their ballot as long as they are in line at a polling place before closing time, a provision that would not be impacted by the 30-minute rule.
Silrum said he would not expect this deadline to be applied during the day, when there are still hours to go before votes have to be tallied. But he said it could be applied at the end of the night, when election officials are trying to close down the polls and file results. In that case, the bill allows for a voter to continue filling out their ballot even after the polls have officially closed, with their vote tallied in the final count certified by the state canvassing board later on.
Though some Democratic lawmakers brought up the possible consequences of a time limit for voters with disabilities, House Bill 1253 includes several other steps aimed at expanding ballot access to disabled North Dakotans. Among them, the bill offers an electronic ballot option that would relieve blind voters, for example, from having to rely on someone else to fill out their ballot for them.
Still, Fargo Democratic Sen. Kathy Hogan, a longtime human services worker who is also involved in disability advocacy, said she voted against the expansive bill despite strong approval of its offerings for blind and disabled voters, mostly over concerns about the 30-minute limit.
“I think the areas where it’s likely to be enforced is areas where there’s controversy,” Hogan said, noting that she thinks the disjointed messaging between the bill's language and the Secretary of State’s Office could lead to unequal enforcement to hinder the vote of minority populations. "I’m afraid of it. I think it’s voter suppression."
Boschee also noted that training for poll workers can be inconsistent across districts, exacerbating the possibility that the 30-minute limit is applied differently in some parts of the state than others. Still, Boschee said he and most other members of the Legislature's small Democratic caucus ended up voting for the bill out of support for its other provisions.
North Dakota lawmakers proposed an unusual flood of election bills this session, a high volume that Silrum has attributed to concerns over voter fraud in other parts of the country in the 2020 presidential election.
There is no evidence backing up allegations of fraud in the presidential election, and the vast majority of North Dakota's election reform bills were winnowed out over the course of the session.
A previous version of this story incorrectly paraphrased Deputy Secretary of State Jim Silrum's position on the voter fraud allegations surrounding the results of the 2020 election. Silrum has not taken a position on the merits of the fraud allegations.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at firstname.lastname@example.org.