BISMARCK — In the wake of rampant conspiracy theories and entrenched doubt about the result of last year's presidential contest, North Dakota lawmakers are considering an unusual flood of election bills, some of which top state officials said would damage the state's well-functioning election system if they pass.
There are at least 44 election-related bills in front of North Dakota legislators this year, more than double the number that have come up even in busy sessions of the past. It's a surge that Deputy Secretary of State Jim Silrum said is partially a reaction to allegations of widespread voter fraud that put the offices of his counterparts in other states on the defensive after President Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump in November.
In the months leading up to the 2020 presidential contest, Trump sowed doubts about the security of mail-in balloting, which many states like North Dakota relied on as a COVID-19 precaution, fueling skepticism about his loss in the months since.
In Trump-dominated North Dakota, this has left some state lawmakers in the tricky position of defending the election integrity of their own state, where Republicans swept statewide matchups last November, even as they have validated allegations of widespread fraud in other parts of the country.
"I'm very concerned (about) what's happening nationwide. But North Dakota, I'm confident," said Rep. Scott Louser, R-Minot, who cited the some 800,000 absentee ballots that swung Pennsylvania for Biden as evidence of fraud in that state. "Big numbers make you wonder."
Louser, who has become a go-to lawmaker on election policy this session, said that concern among many of his colleagues about voter fraud in other parts of the country has resulted in the large slate of election bills before them today. He added that he does have some concerns that the Legislature could inadvertently hinder North Dakota's well-oiled election process by greenlighting some of the more reactive bills.
Top election officials have taken a similar line. In committee meetings over the last week, Silrum has lobbied against many of the election bills brought forward by lawmakers, suggesting that some of their proposals amount to solutions in search of a problem. In five of the last six years, he and his office have noted, North Dakota has ranked first in the nation in a Massachusetts Institute of Technology index of state election performance.
"We're trying our best to say, we understand that we're coming off a year in which elections were conducted in the midst of a pandemic," Silrum said. "Let's not base our election law on just what happened last year, when we have the entire future of our world to think about."
This rash of election reform bills is not unique to North Dakota. Skepticism over Trump's defeat correlated with a spike in election-related legislation in many statehouses. A recent report from the Brennan Center for Justice found that 28 states have introduced, pre-filed or carried a total of more than 100 bills that would restrict voter access, an increase of nearly threefold from the previous year.
North Dakota had a particularly contentious election season last year, and Secretary of State Al Jaeger noted that not all of the 44 bills being tracked by his office relate to mail-in ballots or voter fraud concerns. Some seem to be responses to last year's lawsuits over candidate residency requirements, initiated measures and an attempt by Gov. Doug Burgum to supplant a rival lawmaker with his own candidate.
Still, Jaeger and Silrum testified that the slate of election bills this year is uncommonly large, a fact that they both partially attributed to doubts about last year's election results.
"There are people that are questioning (North Dakota's) type of voting system. It isn't the same system that has received notoriety in other states, whether it was deserved or not," said Jaeger, who noted that some of the bills currently on the table would "certainly set us back."
And even as some North Dakota lawmakers have walked a tightrope to defend the state's election system while casting doubt on those of other states, another faction has raised warnings that voter fraud may have influenced election results here, too.
"It seems like there is an attempt to influence our elections nationwide and in North Dakota," said Rep. Jeff Magrum, R-Hazelton, who has sponsored several substantive election reform bills and credited this year's surge in elections bills with raising important discussions. "Hopefully we'll glean some good information that will make our elections better, or bulletproof so to speak, as far as getting hacked and as far as being influenced by any kind of mischief."
Among the election-related bills introduced by lawmakers this session, one, House Bill 1289, would vastly expand the residency requirement for North Dakota voters, from 30 days to a year. Another, House Bill 1373, would shrink the window for early voting by up to a half of the current timeframe. At least three bills being tracked by the secretary of state's office would restrict the governor's ability to amend election laws during a state of emergency, and another, House Bill 1312, would eliminate the state's policy of no-questions-asked absentee balloting, among other sweeping changes, legislation that Silrum estimated would "disenfranchise tens of thousands of voters."
In North Dakota, growing skepticism about the use of mail-in ballots runs counter to the trend prior to 2020, according to Dana Harsell, a political science professor at the University of North Dakota. Under current law, North Dakota allows any voter to request an absentee ballot — without requiring any special circumstances — and Harsell said the recent trend in North Dakota has been toward broadening the franchise and increasing voting accessibility.
In that time, the prevalence of confirmed voter fraud cases in the state has been so rare as to be essentially irrelevant, Harsell said, citing a Heritage Foundation database that notes just three election fraud convictions in North Dakota since 2012.
"There's always been that specter of voter fraud … but now it’s sort of reached a critical mass," Harsell said. "That may have something to do with the unprecedented number of election reform bills that we're seeing this legislative session."
Many of the election bills on the table have also been opposed by the North Dakota Association of Counties, which represents the county auditors who oversee local elections. Donnell Preskey, a spokeswoman for the group, pointed to "a lot of concern" and "fear" that lawmakers could dramatically overhaul a North Dakota election system that has served the state well so far. In committee meetings on these bills, Preskey has provided education presentations on the security of North Dakota's systems and next week plans to bring in ballot tabulators, scanners and absentee voting materials to demonstrate how they work before the House Government and Veterans Affairs Committee.
Rep. Jim Kasper, R-Fargo, who chairs the committee, pointed to "considerable accusations" about the integrity of the 2020 process in other states while emphasizing that North Dakota's system works well.
"We have really a good election system in North Dakota, but more and more people are wanting to be sure that you vote in person" or have secure ways to vote by mail, he said. And though Kasper said he wants to ensure that North Dakota does not move toward the universal mail-in systems used in some other western states, he said he thinks that some of the election bills in the docket this session "go way too far."
Even with the unusual slew of election reform measures in front of lawmakers this session, Louser, Jaeger and Silrum each said they trust the legislative process to weed out the good bills from the bad. In the meantime, Silrum said, it is the job of the secretary of state's office to make their case to lawmakers for the current system.
"I think it's important for us to say, what you thought happened, and what actually happened may be two different things," Silrum said. "So, if you're going to stop something, make sure you're basing it off of the right criteria, and make sure that you're not going to handicap us for the future."
Readers can reach Forum reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at email@example.com.