MINOT, N.D. — A movement of belligerent anti-maskers, who have spent months disrupting meetings with obnoxious behavior, fell flat on their faces earlier this week when they fell far short of the requisite number of signatures to recall four Fargo School Board members.

The shortfall was due to thousands of signatures getting disqualified.

"Many of the signatures were considered invalid because of inadequate signatures, out-of-state addresses, addresses missing both city name and zip codes, no dates, notary errors, circulator errors and address omissions, according to the district," reporter Chris Hagen tells us. "Some of the signatures included were invalid because signees were from West Fargo, Horace, Harwood, Bismarck or Moorhead, according to the district."

Jackie Gapp, the business manager for Fargo Public Schools and the person in charge of verifying the recall petitions, told me her office will be referring a list of possible violations to the Cass County State's Attorney for possible charges.

"Per NDCC 16.1-01, all violations of law discovered by the filing officer must be reported to the state’s attorney for possible prosecution," Gapp told me, referring to the North Dakota Century Code. "I am working to compile a listing of possible violations to forward to the state’s attorney’s office in accordance with this law."

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I made an open records request for some examples of petitions that were disqualified.

I tried to get all 787 of the petitions submitted but the cost of doing so was prohibitive, estimated at $850. Under open records laws, the state is allowed to charge an hourly rate of $25 per hour to retrieve records if the request takes longer than an hour.

For now, I requested and received one petition that was tossed because the circulator doesn't live in the Fargo School District.

Another two petitions I received were accepted, but had individual signatures invalidated for various reasons.

One example, as you can see, is that the signer lived in Dilworth, Minnesota.

Others were signers from West Fargo.

Still other signatures were clearly disqualified because they were illegible or missing information.

Note that at the bottom of these petitions the circulators signed an attestation saying they, themselves, are qualified electors and this able to circulate these petitions under the law. They are also swearing that the signatures on the petition are also from qualified electors eligible to sign the petitions.

That law doesn't seem to have been followed.

Are criminal charges appropriate?

Let's first recognize that any given petition drive can have mistakes. Some people have bad handwriting. Some people sign a petition in good faith, but simply aren't aware that they aren't eligible to do so. It's not unusual for petition campaigns in North Dakota to see some small percentage of their signatures invalidated for these reasons.

They happen. Any human endeavor is prone to error.

In this instance, however, we're talking about thousands of signatures that were disqualified. The group that organized these recalls were targeting four members of the school board. Recalling each one required 4,144 valid signatures.

The highest percentage of valid signatures of the four recalls was just 67%.

That seems to this observer like something more than understandable human error.

The Recall Fargo School Board group gathers signatures and has them notarized at the Island Park gazebo in downtown Fargo on Monday, August 23, 2021. David Samson / The Forum
The Recall Fargo School Board group gathers signatures and has them notarized at the Island Park gazebo in downtown Fargo on Monday, August 23, 2021. David Samson / The Forum

That's gross incompetence, at best, if not, potentially, a deliberate effort to skirt the law.

Fargo Public Schools is in the right to forward a list of potential violations of the law on to prosecutors for investigation. Prosecutors, based on what I've seen of these petitions, would be right to pursue charges.

This wouldn't be the first time it's happened in Fargo. In 2012, a group of North Dakota State University football players was making some money on the side as paid petitioners for ballot measures to create a conservation fund and legalize medical marijuana. Ten of them ended up pleading guilty to criminal charges for submitting fake signatures.

The situations aren't entirely comparable. There's no evidence that I've seen suggesting the Fargo recall campaign was faking signatures. But, clearly, they were far short of scrupulous when it came to adhering to the law.

And, hey, the law exists for a reason. If we aren't going to enforce it, what's the point?

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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 rport@forumcomm.com.