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Port: State Supreme Court puts term limits back on the ballot, but it's still not clear we need it

In a unanimous decision, the court found that Secretary of State Al Jaeger misapplied the law in disqualifying thousands of signatures in support of a ballot measure to implement term limits.

PHOTO: Jared Hendrix
Bastiat Caucus organizer and term limits measure campaign chairman 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. — In a unanimous decision, North Dakota's Supreme Court overruled Secretary of State Al Jaeger, finding that he misapplied law when he refused to approve a measure implementing term limits for the November ballot.

The court didn't address problems with the measure related to signature and address errors, or violations of the pay-per-signature statue which led to a search warrant being executed on a Minot man's home , but did find that Jaeger erred when he invalidated all signatures 15,740 signatures notarized by a man due to questions over whether his notarizations were valid.

Of the signatures Zeph Toe notarized, 1,043 were disqualified due to signatures inconsistencies, but in the court's view, the remaining 14,697 signatures were sufficient to put the measure back on the ballot.

"We grant the Committee’s petition and issue a writ of mandamus requiring the Secretary of State to place the Term Limits Initiative on the November 8, 2022, general election ballot," the court wrote.

Surrogate judges William A. Neumann and Allan L. Schmalenberger sat in place of Justices Daniel Crothers and Gerald VandeWalle, who were disqualified from presiding.

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This is another curveball in what has already been an eventful late summer for North Dakota politics.

The state's U.S. House and Senate races were turned on their heads by the emergence of high-profile independent candidates in each. Now this ballot measure, which has a very good chance of passing, will further shape the expected turnout of the election.

One race in particular, for the U.S. Senate, may be impacted more than others. Incumbent Republican John Hoeven is up for re-election and is facing Democratic-NPL challenger Katrina Christiansen. But also in the race is independent candidate Rick Becker. Becker was a Republican and challenged Hoeven for the NDGOP's endorsement earlier this year, but lost. Despite promising to abide by that outcome, Becker collected signatures to re-enter the race as an independent.

Becker is one of the sponsors of this measure. The ballot measure campaign is chaired by Jared Hendrix, one of Becker's close allies. This measure could draw Becker voters to the polls, making the three-way Senate race more...interesting.

If approved, the ballot measure would limit North Dakota's governors, and members of the state assembly, to no more than eight cumulative years in office, though based on an analysis of time in office I did last year, it's not clear how needed these limits are.

In state history, only two governors have served more than two terms: John Hoeven, a Republican, and William Guy, a Democrat.

Among the state's current lawmakers, a majority have been in office for eight years or less. Over 77 percent have served for 16 years or less.

There are 141 members of the House and the Senate combined, and the median number of years served for the people currently in office is eight years.

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The average number of years served is 10.3 years.

Every election cycle since 2000 has seen the legislature average a roughly 15 percent turnover rate.

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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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