MINOT, N.D. — Amending North Dakota's constitution has become almost an industry unto itself.
North Dakotans are asked to sign petitions to put one proposed amendment or another on the ballot every election cycle. More often than not, these efforts are funded by out-of-state activist groups who spend millions on marketing and professional operatives.
Even the signature gatherers are often paid professionals instead of the citizen volunteers we might expect. Texas-based Advanced Micro Targeting has been paid at least $1.32 million since the 2016 cycle to collect signatures for various ballot measure campaigns.
The proponents of the initiated measure process like to do a lot of populist chest-thumping in defense of it, blowing hot air about democracy and "the will of the people" when the process is most often used by political professionals backed by interests like with deep pockets.
In 2016 the Marsy's Law campaign was financed almost exclusively by troubled California billionaire Henry Nicholas.
In 2020 the erroneously named North Dakota Voters First pushed sweeping changes to North Dakota's electoral process (dishonestly promoted under the guise of military voting reforms). They had the financial backing of billionaire Enron alum John Arnold.
North Dakota's wide-open political process, particularly when it comes to amending our state constitution, is vulnerable to the machinations of big-money, out-of-state interests.
This election cycle, voters here may be asked to approve a reform aimed at solving some of these problems.
The Greater North Dakota Chamber of Commerce has been soliciting sponsoring committee members for a proposed constitutional amendment that would change two things about the ballot measure process for future constitutional amendments:
- Proposed constitutional amendments may not consist of more than one subject.
- Constitutional amendments must get 60% of the statewide vote to be enacted. Amendments proposed by the Legislature must also enjoy 60% support in both chambers before placing them on the ballot.
"We believe approval of constitutional measures should require a higher level of prudence and be approved by more North Dakota voters because of the ramification of modifying our foundational framework," a document circulated by a GNDC representative to potential sponsors states. "An alteration requiring more support from our state’s citizens provides our Constitution the respect and deference it deserves."
That document includes a table detailing the amount of in-state and out-of-state money spent on initiated measure campaigns going back to the 2012 cycle.
The money from outside of North Dakota has dwarfed in-state spending in those campaigns.
"The North Dakota Constitution has faced a proposed amendment by initiated measure in every election year over the past decade. Numerous initiated measure attempts were funded entirely or primarily by out-of-state monies and interests," the Chamber document reads. "The overt interest to alter the fundamentals that formed our state begs to be examined."
Arik Spencer, president and CEO of the GNDC told me the measure is a grassroots effort that his group is helping to facilitate. "We're going to raise some money for it," he said.
The proposal is very close to a resolution under consideration by the Legislature in Bismarck in their current session. Senate Concurrent Resolution 4005, introduced by Senator Ray Holmberg, a Republican from Grand Forks, would also require that proposed amendments garner 60 percent support, both when considered in the legislative chambers and statewide ballot.
Holmberg's language doesn't limit amendments to one topic, though it would require that amendments only be placed on the November general election ballots, which typically see much higher turnout rates than the primary ballotings in June.
SCR. 4005 passed the Senate on February 22 with a 39-7 vote and is currently before the House of Representatives.
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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 email@example.com.