GRAND FORKS — North Dakotans could have plenty to ponder in the 2022 election campaign, even though it’s an off year: No presidential election, no gubernatorial election, and no realistic chance of defeating the sitting U.S. senator whose term happens to be up, nor the state’s only member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
But hold on a minute!
Secretary of State Al Jaeger last week approved petitions that could put a third constitutional amendment on state ballots. A fourth petition could force a recall.
Also consider the statewide offices that could be contested or the incumbent legislators who could be challenged or, on a more local level, members of school boards and city governing bodies who have attracted attention for one reason or another.
All this takes place in an unsettled political climate. Republicans are engaged in a battle for the soul of the party, and they’ll likely invite voters to make choices in the 2022 election cycle.
So far, three separate amendments to the state’s constitution have been approved for circulation, dealing with issues as diverse as term limits, pot smoking and the process of amending the constitution itself.
To be clear, these ideas are forwarded by separate committees and are in no way linked to one another, except in the number of signatures necessary to get them on the ballot. That number is 31,164, or 4% of the state’s population at the last census. That’s the biggest total in the state’s history, and reflects recent population growth, tied to oil development and increasing urbanization.
As always, the fate of proposed amendments is hard to forecast. Gathering signatures is a challenge, and if they are sufficient, it’s unclear when the votes would be cast. To make the primary election, set to occur on June 14 next year, petitions must be filed with the secretary of state by midnight on Valentine’s Day. The deadline for the general election ballot is midnight on July 11, 2022.
One of the amendments would enshrine marijuana use in the state constitution. This amounts to legalization, although it imposes limits. A second petition would change the process of initiating amendments to the constitution. Most importantly, it limits an initiated amendment to “not more than one subject.” Another raises the threshold for approval to 60% of the votes. The third initiated constitutional amendment, approved for circulation last week, would impose term limits on legislators — but not statewide officials. An individual would be eligible to serve eight years in each house. The amendment isn’t retroactive, so the long-timers in the Legislature would keep their seats. The proposed amendment also bars changes by the Legislature; only voters could propose changes.
The term limits amendment is the brainchild of the so-called Bastiat Caucus, a group of right-leaning legislators that has ignited in-fighting in the state’s Republican Party, and the amendment — assuming sponsors gain the needed signatures to put it on the ballot — would likely become the focal point of the campaign, whether it occurs before the primary election in June or the general election in November.
Jaeger has approved petitions recalling Gov. Doug Burgum and Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford. The bar is high: 25% of votes cast in the 2020 gubernatorial election. This amounts to 89,000 signatures. That’s probably an unachievable goal, but Burgum’s critics on the right wing of the party will use the petitions as a weapon in the battle for the party’s soul.
This same tactic is likely in legislative races, certainly in endorsement conventions and potentially in the primary elections, when candidates are chosen formally. It’s also possible that statewide offices could become targets. Jaeger himself faced such a challenge in the 2018 Republican state convention — and he lost. He kept his job by running as an independent in the general election.
The other marquee position on the 2022 ballot is state attorney general. Wayne Stenehjem has held the job since 2000. He’s been coy about his plans. I’m betting on retirement.
Three other statewide offices will be on the 2022 ballots, all held by incumbent Republicans. Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring, Tax Commissioner Ryan Rauschenberger and Public Service Commissioner Julie Fedorchak are heavily favored; Fedorchak has said she’ll be a candidate for reelection.
The question is whether any of these offices attract challengers, the way the treasurer’s race did in 2020, becoming a kind of surrogate for the battle between mainstream and right-leaning Republicans. Add local campaigns to this mix, and you have a potentially pivotal election year even without marque races.
Jaeger has said he won’t be running for reelection. He offered a correction to last week’s column, pointing out that Ben Meier had served 34 years in the office, and an amplification, saying that three secretaries — Jaeger himself, Meier and Thomas Hall, who served discontinuously — held the job of secretary of state for a total of 88 years. That’s way more than half the time that the office has existed.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.