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Port: As criminal investigation commences, term limits group rips decision to disqualify signatures

However popular the concept of term limits might be doesn't set aside what the law, up to and including our state constitution, requires of those who would use the initiated measure process. Nobody is above the law.

PHOTO: Jared Hendrix
Bastiat Caucus organizer Jared Hendrix speaks during a rally at the North Dakota Capitol on April 5, 2021.
Jeremy Turley /Forum News Service
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MINOT, N.D. — Yesterday, Secretary of State Al Jaeger blocked a ballot measure that would have implemented term limits for state lawmakers and the governor if passed.

Of the more than 46,000 signatures submitted by the ballot measure committee, Jaeger said only 17,265 could be authenticated. The rest were invalid for reasons ranging from notarized signatures "likely forged" to circulators paid per signature.

Under state law, petition circulators may be paid an hourly rate, but they cannot be paid per signature.

Jaeger's office called the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation to help with this situation, and it's clear that a criminal investigation has commenced. I requested a copy of the report BCI provided to Jaeger's office before he decided to invalidate signatures. My request was denied, with a spokesperson for the Attorney General's Office citing section 44-04-18.7 of the North Dakota Century Code as justification for the refusal .

That section relates to handling records related to "criminal intelligence information and criminal investigative information."

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This means a criminal investigation of this matter is ongoing.

Meanwhile, the response to Jaeger's decision from Jared Hendrix, the chairman of the ballot measure committee and a campaign consultant for Rick Becker's U.S. Senate campaign, was positively Trumpian.

It ripped Jaeger for exercising "unprecedented and unconstitutional discretion to dismiss the signatures of thousands of North Dakotans who support term limits."

As an amusing aside, Becker now seems to be distancing himself from Hendrix and this initiated measure. "Bismarck Rep. Rick Becker, who founded the Bastiat Caucus, said he joined the sponsoring committee to provide name recognition but was not involved in the petition process," the Associated Press reports .

He backed term limits for the name recognition? What conviction.

Anyway, let's examine these claims, beginning with the idea that this was an "unprecedented" move from Jaeger.

It's not. In 2012, signature fraud perpetrated by a group of North Dakota State University players and detected by Jaeger's office kept measures related to marijuana and conservation off the ballot .

In 2010, a measure aimed at reforming the state's pharmacy laws was also kept off the statewide ballot by Jaeger's office and, ultimately, by the state Supreme Court .

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"He seems to think we can drop the price 20 cents to be patriotic," Kent Satrang, owner of the Petro Serve USA gas stations, said on this episode of Plain Talk.

I could cite other examples, but you get the point. The word "unprecedented" means a thing has no precedent, and there is plenty of precedent for the Secretary of State's Office invalidating signatures and keeping a measure off the ballot.

As for unconstitutional? Article III of our state constitution , entitled "Powers Reserved to the People," is the relevant section, and it lays out the foundation for our initiated measure process. "The petition shall be circulated only by electors," section 3 states. "They shall swear thereon that the electors who have signed the petition did so in their presence."

That's the requirement set out in the constitution, which also indicates that the secretary of state shall enforce it. "The secretary of state shall pass upon each petition," section 6 of Article III states.

Not only is Jaeger's review of the petitions constitutional, but it is a specific duty assigned to his office by the constitution.

Remember, Jaeger said 15,740 signatures were invalid because the signatures of several circulators were "likely forged" in front of a notary. Thus, all petitions notarized by that person were invalidated.

If Hendrix and his campaign don't believe the signatures were forged, they can have their day in court — "All decisions of the secretary of state in regard to any petition are subject to review by the supreme court," is what the state constitution has to say about that — but there is nothing "unconstitutional" or "unprecedented" about Jaeger doing his constitutionally assigned duty to enforce the requirements of the constitution on the ballot measure process.

The most interesting part of Hendrix's statement is that none of it outside of the malarkey about this being "unconstitutional" and "unprecedented" addresses the substance of what Jaeger's office found.

"Polling shows that term limits for North Dakota legislators and the governor have overwhelming support amongst the people, with 82% favorability," Hendrix states.

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"We filed over 46,000 signatures in support of this effort, clearly demonstrating massive support across the state," he adds.

However popular the concept of term limits might be doesn't set aside what the law, up to and including our state constitution, requires of those who would use the initiated measure process.

Nobody is above the law.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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