MINOT, N.D. — Let's be thankful that the (deceptively named) North Dakota Voters First used their mountain of out-of-state money to hire counsel who is to legal acumen as a potato is to a razor blade.
They drafted and circulated their measure illegally, and yesterday the state Supreme Court ordered it removed from the ballot.
We got lucky.
This is an off-year for North Dakota elections. We have no U.S. Senate race. With all due respect to Democratic candidates Shelley Lenz and Zach Raknerud, the top-of-the-ticket gubernatorial and U.S. House races do not seem competitive. None of the statewide races look like they could end up being close.
There was going to be a lot of available ad space, without the candidates buying things up, and NDVF had an Enron billionaire backing their play. As terrible as their measure was, on its merits, it wouldn't be the first time deep-pocketed interests steamrolled their bad ideas into the law on a road paved with cash.
This group had already spent nearly $400,000 on paid signature collectors and legal counsel. How many millions do you suppose they were going to spend on bamboozling the electorate?
Here's a harsh truth: North Dakota has crafted an initiated measure process that is eminently accessible. Volunteer, grassroots groups of citizens really can organize themselves into a campaign and change the law. Unfortunately, a side effect of that openness is that it has attracted activist groups from the right and left who see that they can exploit North Dakota's easy-going initiated measure laws to get a toe hold for their pet projects.
Once they've won here, they can take that momentum to other states and say, "see, North Dakota did it."
It's no secret that I dislike the initiated measure process — I have little patience for direct democracy, it is a fundamentally flawed way of governing — but I also recognize that most of you like the approach.
So fine. If we're going to have it, let's protect it so that it's used only in the way intended, which I'm pretty sure was never professional signature collectors earning hundreds of thousands of dollars to put a billionaire's hobby horse idea on the ballot.
To that end, now that Measure 3 is gone, I hope you all take a long and hard look at Measure 2.
This was put on the ballot by the Legislature and would amend the state constitution to reform the initiated measure process for constitutional amendments.
Here's what this amendment would do if voters pass it in November, and keep in mind that these changes would only apply to constitutional amendments, not initiated measures seeking to change statute:
- Constitutional amendments would only be voted on in general elections. The June primary elections have far less turnout than the November elections. The idea is that if we're going to amend the state constitution, we should do so in a vote that includes the largest number of people.
- If the amendment fails on the ballot, it's done. If it passes, it gets submitted to the Legislature for approval.
- If simple majorities in the House and Senate approve the measure, it is enacted.
- If the measure fails in the Legislature, it goes to another vote of the people, and if it passes the second time it is enacted.
This process may seem a bit convoluted, but what it does is bring extra scrutiny, as well as some much-needed checks and balances, to amending the essential document of law in our state.
Again, none of this would apply to statutory measures. This would only apply if someone wants to amend the state constitution.
If we want to protect our constitution from the machinations of billionaires and out-of-state activists, this is an excellent way to do it.
I can think of many other reforms needed for the initiated measure process — a ban on paid petition circulators, for instance — but we can have those debates later. In this election cycle, we have a good start on reform already on the ballot and awaiting our votes.
To comment on this article, visit www.sayanythingblog.com
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.