MINOT, N.D. — In May, an initiated measure campaign calling itself North Dakota Voters First filed a federal lawsuit against the state of North Dakota asking that they be allowed to collect signatures online instead of in-person as state law requires.
This suit hasn't stopped the group from circulating petitions. They're collecting signatures, and inspiring controversy since their petitioners aren't exactly being up-front about everything this measure would do.
They're advertising it as a measure to expand the voting window for deployed military voters, but the constitutional amendment would also make sweeping changes to state election law, including open primaries and ranked-choice voting in general elections. While I suspect most North Dakotans want to do everything we can to make sure voters who are on active duty can vote, they're likely to find the other proposals in this measure that petitioners are neglecting to talk about far more controversial.
Anyway, today, U.S. District Court Judge Peter Welte denied the request for an injunction prohibiting North Dakota from enforcing its petitioning requirements.
The plaintiffs claimed that the restrictions put on public gatherings and social interactions by the coronavirus pandemic violated their First Amendment rights to petition, but Welte disagreed. He pointed out that North Dakota law gives petitioners up to a year to get their signatures in and qualify a measure for the ballot, and noted that North Dakota Voters First squandered much of that time by their own choice.
"Despite knowing that the 2020 general election presented the final opportunity to implement legislative redistricting reform for the next decade, NDVF waited until four months before the July 6, 2020 signature deadline to submit a proposed petition.," Welte wrote in the opinion. "After the Secretary returned the petition with corrections, NDVF waited another month and a half before submitting its revised petition, leaving a mere 67 days to gather signatures."
"As the Secretary aptly points out, any number of unpredictable events can hamper signature gathering efforts, ranging from bad weather to economic downturns," Welte continued. "The Plaintiffs took a calculated risk in waiting to submit a proposed petition until the last four months of the last possible election for a once-in-a-decade reform measure. The Court declines to intervene at the eleventh hour by subjecting decades-old constitutional and statutory provisions to strict scrutiny—provisions that the Plaintiffs concede complied with the First Amendment in less turbulent times."
I suspect North Dakota Voters First will ultimately get their issue on the ballot. Their campaign has already accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions from left-wing groups, including one founded by hedge fund billionaire John Arnold.
They're also using paid petitioners, as evidenced by their own filings in this suit.
With enough money, and an army of wage-workers to collect signatures, you could put just about anything on the statewide ballot for a vote.
Which is a deep-seated problem with North Dakota's initiated measure process.
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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.