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Port: Electronic signatures for ballot measure campaigns might not be the worst idea

"If we're to tolerate this foolishness, perhaps a proposal before the Legislature in Bismarck to reform the initiated measure process has some merit."

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Ballot measure campaign organizers haul nearly 37,000 signatures into the state Capitol Monday, July 6, 2020, for review by the Secretary of State's Office.
Adam Willis / The Forum

MINOT, N.D. — The founders of the American system of government were as much concerned with protecting our republic from the tyranny of fickle mobs as they were the excesses of monarchy and despotism.

“In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever characters composed, passion never fails to wrest the scepter from reason,” James Madison, who had great disdain for direct democracy, wrote in the Federalist Papers . “Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob."

Thus informed by the architect of the U.S. Constitution, I would, were it up to me, wad up the portions of North Dakota's state constitution which allow for laws to be enacted by way of petitions and throw them in the nearest Dumpster where they belong.

But because we have strayed so far from the principles underpinning our nation's founding, mine is a minority viewpoint. Many deluded souls have convinced themselves that allowing a distracted, largely apathetic electorate to vote on intricate policy proposals put on the ballot through a signature-gathering process that is easily manipulated by deep-pocketed interests and wide open to fraud is some pure distillation of the democratic ideal.

This is foolishness.

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But if we're to tolerate foolishness, perhaps a proposal before the Legislature in Bismarck to reform the initiated measure process has some merit.

House Concurrent Resolution 3031 , introduced by Rep. Steve Vetter, a Republican from Grand Forks, would amend the state constitution to allow for electronically submitted signatures. Petitioners would still be allowed to collect signatures the old way, despite its frequent problems with fraud and abuse, but however the signatures are gathered, their number must meet higher thresholds.

Statutory measures would need a number equal to five percent of the state's population, up from 2% currently. The requirement for constitutional measures would go from 4% to 10.

Based on our state's population from the 2020 census, statutory measures would need nearly 40,000 signatures. Constitutional measures would need almost 78,000.

The measure would also require that constitutional measures be approved at the ballot box twice. Once on the June primary ballot, and again on the November ballot, and they would also have to be approved by something more than a mere majority of statewide voters. They'd have to be approved by a voting majority in a majority of the state's counties.

So, a high bar, but then the bar should be high when it comes to amending our state's founding document. Note, these additional requirements would only require to constitutional amendments.

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Rep. Steve Vetter, R-Grand Forks, introduces House Concurrent Resolution 3031 on March 3, 2023, to the House Government and Veterans Affairs Committee. To his right are Secretary of State Michael Howe, measure opponent Kevin Herrmann, State Elections Specialist Lee Ann Oliver and measure supporter Dustin Gawrylow.
Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service

Vetter and others supporting this proposal argue that this is a compromise between supporters of the initiated measure and those of us who see it as too vulnerable to fraud and easily manipulated by billionaire hobbyists and out-of-state lobbying groups. I tend to agree with them. While I remain unenthusiastic about the idea of legislating at the ballot box, if we are to allow it, raising the thresholds, and implementing a far more secure method for collecting signatures, seems like a move in the right direction.

My only quibble is that by continuing to allow paper signatures, the old way, we're perpetuating what is a fraud process. I spoke with Vetter, and he said he's got a potential amendment aimed at placating critics of this proposal, which would allow petitioners for a statutory measure to forgo the possibility of collecting signatures electronically in exchange for existing, far lower signature count requirement.

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But, again, if we argue that the current process is flawed, what good are reforms that still allow it to exist?

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The opponents, of course, deem all of this an attack on democracy, blah, blah, blah.

Per the Bismarck Tribune , the League of Women's Voters "say it is an attack on the constitution's powers reserved to the people, and puts forth unnecessary and unjustified changes."

"Citizen-led initiated measures have a long history in North Dakota and play an important role in supporting citizen participation in the governance of the state. HCR 3031 intends to bring an end to that role," League Board Member Carol Sawicki wrote in testimony submitted to lawmakers.

It's worth remembering that Sawicki was the chairperson for the erroneously named "Help Heroes Vote" initiated measure campaign, one of the most egregiously dishonest ballot measure endeavors in recent memory . One that was ultimately kept off the ballot by the courts due to drafting errors. The paid petitioners for that proposal actively sought to fool voters into thinking they were merely making it easier for deployed military personnel to vote. In reality, the measure would have made a number of sweeping changes to state election law, including implementing ranked-choice voting.

If someone like Sawicki, who has abused the initiated measure process in the past, is against this reform, then it's a good sign that we're probably headed in the right direction.

A secure system for electronic signatures would make review and verification a more straightforward task and less open to fraud. Raising the thresholds for changing our law this way also makes sense, especially for the state constitution.

Kudos to Vetter for bringing this forward. Whatever happens to his proposal in Bismarck - if lawmakers approve it, it would go to the ballot for a vote - he's moving this debate in a fruitful direction.

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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