MINOT, N.D. — Earlier this month, I wrote a column about a complaint I'd received from a state lawmaker, among others, concerning a ballot measure being circulated for signatures to be eligible for the November ballot.
This measure, a constitutional amendment proposed by a group calling themselves (despite their out-of-state funding) North Dakota Voters First, would make numerous changes to state law.
Among other things, it would put the newly formed ethics commission in charge of redistricting.
It would create an open primary process that completely sidelines the political parties.
It would change our current voting model for general elections to a ranked-choice model.
Yet, when petitioners are asking North Dakotans for signatures, the only part of this measure they're talking about is the "Help Heroes Vote" section, which would, for deployed members of the military, expand the voting window from 46 days preceding the election to 60 days.
This measure makes sweeping changes to the way we elect candidates in North Dakota, but many of the people signing the petition think they're only supporting changes to military voting.
This is happening all over the state.
"Over the weekend, I was approached by an initiated measure signature gatherer as I was walking into a grocery store in Bismarck," North Dakota resident Brady Pelton told me. "I humored the young woman to get an idea of how supporters are collecting signatures and was extremely disappointed in what she shared with me. First, she asked if I was interested in 'helping vets vote in North Dakota.' When I asked her pointedly if that was all the measure would do, she responded, 'yes.'"
Brady told me he felt "outright lied to about the contents of the measure petition."
Another reader from Fargo, who asked to remain anonymous, actually recorded his interaction with a signature gatherer there. In the recording, you can hear him ask for details about the measure, at which point the signature collector goes into a spiel about helping deployed military members vote.
This petitioner is not well informed. He says the measure needs 3,200 signatures, but state law requires 26,904.
He also says that deployed military service members have only 30 days to vote under current law, but federal law mandates at least 45 days, and North Dakota law allows for 46.
The measure would expand the window to 60 days.
I contacted Secretary of State Al Jaeger to inquire about any complaints concerning this issue made to his office.
"We are receiving complaints almost every day," Jaeger told me, adding his office had already received two telephoned complaints that day by about 10:30 am.
What can be done about a measure being circulated under pretenses?
"While there are laws against certain practices, misleading the public isn't specifically addressed," Jaeger said.
North Dakota Voters First is currently suing the state of North Dakota, arguing that they should be allowed to collect signatures online because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In an affidavit filed in that suit, Amy Jacobson, who describes herself as a consultant hired by the group, has contracted with an organization Advanced Micro Targeting to collect signatures.
It's unclear if the petitioners who are misleading voters work for AMT or if they're volunteers. During the 2018 election cycle, a previous iteration of NDVF, which called itself North Dakotans for Public Integrity at the time, paid AMT hundreds of thousands of dollars to collect signatures for a constitutional amendment, which, among other things, created the state ethics commission.
Ironically, Jaeger told me the ethics commission might be where complaints about this matter need to be directed. "I suppose it would be appropriate for people who believe that they have been misled to file a complaint with the ethics commission," Jaeger told me. "It seems as if deception on signature gathering would qualify for a hearing by the Ethics Commission. It would be a good test of what they wanted the ethics commission to do."
I called Carol Sawicki, who is listed as the chairperson of NDVF measure committee, but she refused to answer my questions and instead asked that I send an inquiry to the generic info email address listed on her campaign's website.
According to the most recent reports filed with the Secretary of State's office, the NDVF group has collected over $272,000 in contributions so far this cycle. Despite the name of the group - North Dakota Voters First - that money has come from three left-wing groups based in Texas, Colorado, and Massachusetts.
Most of that money, some $150,000, was contributed by a group called the Action Now Initiative. It was founded in 2011 by hedge fund billionaire John Arnold.
Arnold was an employee of the infamous commodities firm Enron, and received an $8 million bonus - the largest ever issued by the company - just days before it declared bankruptcy.
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Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.