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Change or distraction? Petition seeks to rewrite N.D. constitutional language on who can vote

Members of North Dakotans for Citizen Voting hope to amend language in the North Dakota Constitution to explicitly prohibit non-citizens from voting in state and city elections. Petitioners for the proposed ballot measure have been accused of aggressive canvasing methods. Forum file photo

FARGO — Supporters of a proposed ballot measure seeking to clear up ambiguity around voting in North Dakota are making headway in gathering the necessary 26,902 signatures required to get the measure on the November ballot. But some say the aggressive tactics used by petitioners is intended to sully the ballot measure process.

The petition proposes to amend language in Article II of the North Dakota Constitution and to add a new section that exclusively gives the right to vote to U.S. citizens and North Dakota residents. Current language states that "every citizen of the United States" who's at least 18 years old is considered a "qualified elector." The proposal looks to replace the phrase "only a" for the word "every."

Gary Emineth, chairman of North Dakotans for Citizen Voting, says the proposal's wording makes the law concrete and clear that only citizens can vote.

However, not everyone agrees with Emineth.

"The petition's language accomplishes nothing," said Zac Echola, a sponsor for Reform Fargo, a group gathering signatures for a ballot measure to change Fargo elections to an approval voting system that lets voters vote for as many candidates as they like.

Echola said there isn't a movement to allow non-citizen voting in North Dakota and maintained that Emineth's petition isn't targeting the right language in the constitution.

He said canvassers and petitioners for the measure have been using aggressive methods, like relentlessly pursuing people and bothering businesses, to gather signatures.

Echola said the petition is a distraction since the change it proposes is meaningless and that the group is trying to undermine the ballot measure process by annoying pedestrians away from other petitioners.

Emineth said only a few issues were raised about petitioners, and those issues were dealt with and resolved. He denied the claim that the petition is a way to undermine the ballot measure process, adding that their group has the same right to bring an issue forward to the public.

Steven Morrison, a law professor at the University of North Dakota, said the proposed amendment does clean up what could be a grammatical loophole since the word "every" doesn't conclusively exclude non-citizens from voting, but it may not make a direct difference in an election.

"Practically speaking, I don't see how this would change anything," Morrison said. "The question is do you have non-residents, non-citizens voting now?"

The operative words in the constitution are "citizen" and "qualified elector," Echola said, so the proposed semantic change would not have much of an impact.

The petition includes another change that would add a line to the constitution, saying that "only a qualified elector" is eligible to vote in local, state or federal elections here. Both Morrison and Echola said this addition seemed redundant.

Emineth said other cities in the country were successful in allowing non-U.S. citizens to vote in local and city elections. He said the petition is an effort to clean up the language in North Dakota before any push for non-citizen voting can take place here.

Several cities in Maryland, including College Park, Takoma Park, Hyattsville and Mount Rainier, have passed legislation that allows non-citizens to vote in local elections, according to a 2017 Washington Post story.

Connecticut, Delaware and New Mexico all allow non-citizens to vote in municipal or town elections, according to the National Congress of State Legislatures. The cities of Chicago and San Francisco also allow non-citizens limited voting opportunities.

Emineth, who's running for state Legislature, said the measure isn't meant to discourage people from voting but rather to encourage non-citizens to become citizens so they can participate in the election process.