MINOT, N.D. — North Dakota law allows citizens to legislate at the ballot box, whether it's a statute or even the state constitution.
Initiated measure campaigns need only collect the requisite number of petition signatures from North Dakota citizens and their issue goes on the ballot for an up or down vote. For statutory measures, a number of signatures equal to 2 percent of the statewide population are required. For constitutional measures, it's 4 percent.
For the last decade, those requirements have been based on the 2010 census, but now they're going up based on the recently finalized 2020 count numbers.
According to a press release from Secretary of State Al Jaeger, for the next decade, statutory measures will require 15,582 signatures, an increase of 2,130.
Constitutional measures will require 31,164, an increase of 4,260.
There are currently two ballot measure campaigns circulating petitions for inclusion on the statewide ballot next year - one a constitutional amendment to legalize recreational marijuana, the other an amendment to require a supermajority vote for constitutional amendments - and Jaeger's office has contacted each to alert them to the new signature requirements.
What are the political implications of these changes?
It means that truly grassroots groups will have a tougher time getting their issues on the ballot. These are the people most of us think of when we think about ballot measures. Groups of citizens motivated by one issue or another taking their cause to their fellow voters. That's a tough job. Gathering valid signatures is not easy, and now with a greater number of signatures required, it's even harder.
For the professional activists, though, things stay the same, because those are the people who have the money to pay for their signatures to be collected.
State law allows for remuneration for signature collectors, but only if they're paid hourly. They cannot be paid per signature.
It's become big business.
One company, Advanced Micro Targeting, has been used repeatedly by big-money campaigns.
The company received $335,000 for services rendered to the Measure 3 election law campaign which was ultimately kept off the ballot by the state Supreme Court last year. It was AMT's petition circulators who were accused by many citizens of misrepresenting the measure as being focused on military voting and not its many other complicated and deeply controversial proposals.
In the 2018 cycle, AMT received $768,857 to collect signatures for measures that would become Measure 1 (ethics committee) and Measure 2 (noncitizen voting) on that year's ballot.
In the 2016 cycle, AMT was paid $218,750 to collect signatures for the Marsy's Law campaign.
That's over $1.32 million paid to a single company to collect signatures for ballot measures in the last three election cycles, and this is the norm across the country. "Today, the vast majority of petition campaigns use paid circulators, who are paid between $1 and $3 per signature," the National Council of State Legislatures tells us. "Very few campaigns attempt to qualify an initiative petition with volunteer circulators, and even fewer do so successfully."
Signature requirements are intended to be a sort of filter for the ballot, allowing only measures with a certain level of public support make it to a vote. Only, as a practical matter, it doesn't work that way.
For rich people, and deep-pocketed organizations, the signature requirements are no real hurdle at all. It's only the grassroots groups they pose a problem for.
But since the Supreme Court has ruled that bans on paying petition circulators are unconstitutional, that leaves lawmakers with little recourse to fix this problem.
If states like North Dakota can't regulate the initiated measure process so that it operates the way most in the public think it does - grassroots, volunteer-led campaigns - what's the point of having the process?
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Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at email@example.com.