BISMARCK — A coronavirus pandemic will make collecting signatures for candidates and measures that proponents want on the election ballot this year harder, politicians and activists said.
Statewide candidates who are not endorsed by their parties need to turn in 300 signatures by April 6. Several proposed measures, including two regarding legalizing recreational marijuana and state Rep. Rick Becker’s proposal to eliminate property taxes, must have thousands of signatures collected by July 6.
At the same time, Gov. Doug Burgum has asked residents to practice social distancing to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Events that can attract hundreds of attendees, and potential petition supporters, have been canceled.
“Since we are a volunteer (organization), we primarily get our signatures at big events,” said Legalize ND Chairman David Owen, who is spearheading one measure that could let North Dakotans decide in November whether recreational marijuana use should be legal. “When there aren’t any major events, you have a large problem. St. Patrick’s Day getting canceled, that probably cost us between 1,000 and 1,500 signatures."
Supporters cannot sign petitions electronically in North Dakota, Secretary of State Al Jaeger said, and his office doesn’t have the authority to change that because of a coronavirus pandemic, he added.
His office also doesn’t plan to ask for extensions for filing petitions.
Collecting signatures door-to-door is time-consuming, and people are less likely to answer the door during a pandemic, Owen said. His group needs at least 13,452 signatures.
“If we stay shut down until July, no, we’re not going to make it,” he said. “If we get going again after Easter, maybe.”
Those who collect signatures for proposed ballot measures need to witness the signing, but candidates can send copies of their petition via fax, mail, email or other means and have their supporters sign them, Jaeger said. The forms can then be scanned and sent back to the candidates, Jaeger said.
“That’s a positive way to address the situation that we are currently in,” he said, adding candidates could start collecting signatures in January.
Still, collecting 300 signatures is a bigger feat than some may think, said state Rep. Thomas Beadle, a Fargo Republican who is running for state treasurer against Rep. Daniel Johnston, R-Kathryn.
“When you are trying to do it one person at a time while staying 6 feet apart, it certainly presents an extra hurdle,” Beadle said, adding dozens of supporters are helping him collect signatures. “We’re able to do it one, two, five, 10 people at a time.”
Johnston did not return a message seeking comment for this story.
The North Dakota GOP canceled its state convention, which was supposed to run Friday, March 27, through Sunday, March 29. The party plans to endorse candidates who are running unopposed on the Republican ticket, but those running for contested races — governor, state superintendent and treasurer — will have to collect 300 signatures, GOP Chairman Rick Berg said.
“We’ve been helping them sign petitions,” Berg said, adding the party will endorse contested races after the primary in June.
Democrats endorsed several candidates on Saturday, March 22, during a virtual convention, and Libertarians also selected their picks for several statewide races.
"We transitioned to a virtual convention, not just to protect the health of everyone participating, but the public at large," North Dakota Dem-NPL spokesman Alex Rohr said in a statement. "The NDGOP had a chance to address a public health concern while also giving their party delegates a chance to participate. They said it was too hard, and that's disappointing."
The GOP didn’t hold a virtual convention for fear that secret ballots could be exposed, Berg said.
Dawn Morgan also worried about being able to collect the 300 signatures she needs to run for the Fargo Park Board. She hadn't reached her goal as of Thursday, March 26, but she left forms in retirement homes and sent papers to individual residents via mail to sign and return to her, she added.
"When everyone was told to stay home because of the coronavirus, I realized that I wouldn't be able to find groups of people who may want to sign my petition," she said.
Collecting the necessary number of signatures is doable.
Insurance Commissioner Jon Godfread, who is running unopposed, announced Thursday he submitted 380 signatures to appear on the primary ballot for his post.
Becker, a Republican from Bismarck, said it will be challenging to get the 26,904 signatures he needs for his proposed measure. Jaeger’s office approved Becker’s petition for circulation on Wednesday, March 25, and the state lawmaker is shooting for 35,000 signatures.
Becker said he is confident his proposal to use state revenues like the Legacy Fund to replace property taxes can work, even as state revenues are expected to drop. Collecting enough signatures despite a pandemic will show how much support the measure has, he said.
“I think we have a good strategy,” he said of his group's ability to get the measure on the ballot.
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