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North Dakota secretary of state, attorney general candidates talk voter registration, legalizing pot

Three candidates are running to replace longtime Secretary of State Al Jaeger, while recently appointed Attorney General Drew Wrigley is looking to keep his office against Democratic challenger Tim Lamb.

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Candidates for secretary of state and attorney general speak at a forum hosted by the North Dakota Newspaper Association in Bismarck on Thursday, May 5, 2022. The secretary of state candidates, from left, are Jeffrey Powell, Marvin Lepp and Michael Howe. The candidates for attorney general are, from right, Drew Wrigley and Tim Lamb.
Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service
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BISMARCK — Candidates for North Dakota secretary of state and attorney general gathered at the same table Thursday, May 5, to go over major issues in their races at a forum hosted by the North Dakota Newspaper Association.

The race to replace longtime Secretary of State Al Jaeger includes:

The winner between Howe and Lepp in the June Republican primary will take on Powell in the November general election.
The attorney general race features current Republican officeholder Drew Wrigley and Democratic challenger Tim Lamb.

Wrigley, who formerly served six years as lieutenant governor and two stints as a U.S. attorney, was appointed by Gov. Doug Burgum to the office after longtime Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem died earlier this year.

Lamb is a Grand Forks attorney and military veteran who formerly served on the Grand Forks Public School Board. Wrigley and Lamb will square off in the November election.

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The race for secretary of state

The three candidates running to become the state's top administrator and leading election official shared their philosophical approaches to the office Thursday.

Howe said North Dakota's election system is secure, but the next secretary of state will have to gain back the public's trust in the process. He plans to "pull the blinds up" on elections to show residents exactly how votes are counted.

The lawmaker said he would work with the Legislature on election laws as long as the proposals "make it easier to vote and harder to cheat."

The secretary of state also sits on several regulatory boards, including the Board of University and School Lands, and Howe noted he would aim to protect the North Dakota energy sector from "outside challenges."

Lepp said he's running to ensure his grandchildren's future. He said he wants to bring transparency to the election process, improve the office's website and support small businesses applying for licenses to operate.

The auto service adviser said he thinks about 30% of North Dakotans believe there was voter fraud in the state's 2020 election, and he would work to make sure there is never doubt about election integrity.

Powell said he's worried about changes Republicans have made to election laws across the country in the wake of the 2020 election and former President Donald Trump's baseless claims of mass voter fraud. He said he wants to fend off attempts to dismantle free and fair elections and let North Dakotans decide who serves in public office.

The university administrator added he would advocate for ranked-choice voting in elections to the state House of Representatives.

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North Dakota is the only state in the country without voter registration, and Powell said he's a "hard no" on implementing the process. It's great that the state government doesn't know each voter's political affiliation, he said.

Lepp said he was initially in favor of voter registration, but he has changed his mind because he believes that could open up a way for employers to see how their workers voted.

Howe said he's willing to discuss the idea of voter registration with members of the public or lawmakers, but he did not express a firm position on the issue.

The race for attorney general

The attorney general has a multifaceted job, and Wrigley and Lamb both believe they are qualified. The officeholder represents the state in legal matters, issues opinions on questions of state law, enforces open records laws and oversees a number of law enforcement operations, including the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation.

Wrigley touted his experience as a prosecutor, saying it prepared him well to slide into the role of attorney general earlier this year. He said North Dakotans are troubled by an uptick in violent crime, and he's currently working on a "crime package" to tackle the issue.

Lamb said he was encouraged by Democratic officials at the last moment to put his name on the ballot, adding he still hasn't defined many of his positions in the race.

The candidates clashed on whether to legalize recreational marijuana. A group of pro-legalization advocates are currently circulating petitions to get the issue on the ballot later this year.

Wrigley said, as a parent, he opposes the legalization of recreational pot, noting he has seen people "go down a rat hole" with "dangerous substances" like marijuana.

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Lamb said there is widespread support for at least decriminalizing the drug, adding that prosecutors should spend less time going after marijuana offenders and more time pursuing charges against "hard drug" offenders.

After falsely stating that recreational pot is legal in Minnesota, Lamb said he thinks North Dakota should legalize the drug because "I don’t think the repercussions have been that bad" for other states.

Jeremy Turley is a Bismarck-based reporter for Forum News Service, which provides news coverage to publications owned by Forum Communications Company.
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