Judge supports North Dakota officials' decision to reject term limit petitions
The judge's findings of fact found "credible facts" supporting Secretary of State Al Jaeger's determination to toss out thousands of petition signatures, including some violating a pay-per-signature ban.
BISMARCK — A judge found “credible facts” to support North Dakota elections officials' decision to invalidate thousands of petition signatures — including some violating a pay-per-signature ban — seeking to place a term-limit measure on the November ballot.
The findings of fact issued on Friday, Aug. 26, by District Judge James S. Hill came at the direction of the North Dakota Supreme Court, which ordered an evidentiary hearing to examine the determination by Secretary of State Al Jaeger to invalidate 29,101 petition signatures.
The proposed measure’s backers had asked the Supreme Court to order Jaeger to place the measure on the ballot, but the justices first wanted a lower court to establish facts in the case.
The petition signatures had been gathered by North Dakota for Term Limits, the sponsoring committee that submitted 46,366 petition signatures with Jaeger’s office on Feb. 15. To be placed on the ballot, 31,163 valid signatures were required.
Jaeger determined on March 22 that only 17,265 of the signatures were valid and discarded 29,101 — meaning that the petitions for the initiated ballot measure failed. He also alleged the group had violated state law by offering signature gatherers bonuses for obtaining signed petitions. After an investigation into the allegations, Attorney General Drew Wrigley referred the case last month to a Ward County prosecutor. The prosecutor's office did not immediately respond for comment.
Petition signatures Jaeger invalidated included every signature notarized by Zeph Toe, a notary public who had notarized 751 petition packets containing 21,634 signatures.
“At the end of the day, all of the inconsistencies across all of the petitions and affidavits raised sufficient concerns on the part of Secretary Jaeger about Toe’s property execution of his notary duties,” Hill wrote in his findings. “Such inconsistencies indicated to Secretary Jaeger that Toe’s notarizations of the petitions to be likely fraudulent.”
Jaeger’s office also found various “red flags” from petitions collected by other circulators, also resulting in thousands of rejected signatures. Jaeger presented documentation of his office’s determination, including a 125-page spreadsheet containing a “multitude” of reasons for rejecting petition signatures.
Some signatures contained addresses not written in the petition signers’ handwriting and petitions that suspiciously contained “substantially similar signatures, while others had discrepancies such as referring to a street and avenue for the same circulator.
“Numerous” staff members in Jaeger’s office reviewed the petition affidavits in question, Hill found.
“Based on the totality of the information available to the Office of the Secretary of State at the time of the review, this Court agrees with the finding by the Secretary of State,” Hill wrote.
In the evidentiary hearing on Tuesday, Aug. 23, Jaeger testified that Toe’s errors were more than he had ever seen by a single notary in his 30 years as secretary of state.
“Because of these obvious errors, Secretary Jaeger could not, with confidence, state that the other petitions notarized by Toe were without errors or fraud,” Hill wrote. “Therefore, he determined that all of the affidavits notarized by Toe were untrustworthy and none of them could be counted.”
Jaeger also tossed out 7,793 signatures he found violated North Dakota’s pay-per-signature ban. Another 4,537 signatures contained flaws rendering them invalid, including incomplete addresses and names that were not clearly printed.
The term limits group, led by District 38 GOP Chairman Jared Hendrix, has pushed back on the criminal allegations and Jaeger's decision to bar the measure from the ballot.
The measure sponsors will challenge Hill's findings, Hendrix said.
"This order is only the first part of our ongoing appeal to the North Dakota Supreme Court, and it contains clear and fundamental errors of both law and fact," he said in a statement. "For example, the Court ruled that petitioners cannot make an 'after the fact' explanation to remedy errors the secretary mistakenly alleges, but the Constitution actually requires that very process."
Hendrix argued that Jaeger erred by rejecting more than 15,000 signatures from a single notary, a determination he said was based on Jaeger's "hunch" regarding the handwriting. The group will present its arguments next week to the North Dakota Supreme Court, Hendrix said.