Electronic signatures pitched as 'compromise' for North Dakota constitutional initiatives
Opponents view it as an attack on citizens' abilities to propose such measures
BISMARCK — Supporters of a proposed measure to change how citizens can petition for ballot measures and amend the North Dakota constitution paint their effort as a compromise.
Opponents say the proposal is an attack on citizens' abilities to propose such measures.
The House Government and Veterans Affairs Committee on Friday heard House Concurrent Resolution 3031 by Rep. Steve Vetter, R-Grand Forks. Voters in November 2024 would decide the measure if it passes the House and Senate.
Vetter and measure backer Dustin Gawrylow, of Bismarck, say their proposal is a compromise, allowing electronic signature gathering for measure petitions, but adding restrictions such as more signatures needed for ballot placement and two majority votes to pass.
"The Legislature doesn't want it easy to change the constitution, and ... the people don't want power taken away from them," Vetter said.
The measure would require the secretary of state to set up an online signature gathering system, effective in 2026, for voters to sign forms and petitions for initiated and referred measures, recall petitions and candidate nominations. Vetter said such a system would benefit "grassroots people" and those with little money, and would mitigate petition fraud.
Secretary of State Michael Howe testified neutrally on the proposal, but said an electronic signature system "has great appeal for our office, just the ease of doing things ... but can we implement this and implement it with integrity?"
Gawrylow told lawmakers the measure "is my attempt to create an olive branch to say let's come up with a solution that is a compromise." Electronic signatures would "push out 90% of the money on the petition side because there would be no reason to hire petitioners to run around the state collecting signatures," he said.
Vetter's measure also would limit all initiated measures to one subject. He said he would like to further amend that component to clarify the definition of a single subject.
His proposal also would increase the number of signatures petitioners would need to get a measure on the ballot, from 4% to 10% of the state's population at the last federal decennial census for constitutional initiatives, and from 2% to 5% for all other initiatives.
The resolution also would require constitutional initiatives to pass both the primary and general elections with a majority of votes and in a majority of legislative districts, which Vetter said would ensure widespread geographic support. Two elections "give the people and the Legislature plenty of time to dive into this," he said.
Opponents to Vetter's measure, who include the League of Women Voters of North Dakota, say it is an attack on the constitution's powers reserved to the people, and puts forth unnecessary and unjustified changes.
"Citizen-led initiated measures have a long history in North Dakota and play an important role in supporting citizen participation in the governance of the state. HCR 3031 intends to bring an end to that role," League Board Member Carol Sawicki wrote in testimony.
Vetter's measure is similar to one passed last month by the Senate and sent to the House. That measure also would raise signature requirements, require majority vote approvals at the primary and general elections, and limit constitutional initiatives to one subject, among its provisions.
The House panel will take up Vetter's measure again at another time.
North Dakota lawmakers in recent years have grumbled about certain constitutional initiatives voters have approved, including measures for a state Ethics Commission in 2018 and for term limits on the governor and state lawmakers last year.
Nearly 62% of voters in 2020 rejected a measure proposed by lawmakers that would have given the Legislature a say in passing constitutional initiatives.
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