Why are some people so distrustful of North Dakota voters? A new group has emerged with the name Protect the North Dakota Constitution.
That’s a noble-sounding cause, but make no mistake: This is an effort to weaken the ability of voters to amend the North Dakota Constitution.
By law, an initiated ballot measure that is supported by a simple majority is enough to amend the constitution. That’s a threshold that has been in place for decades.
But this group aiming to erode voters’ authority wants you to believe that a simple majority sets the bar too low, making it “almost trivialized” to amend the state constitution.
They want to persuade voters to weaken their voice by requiring a 60% supermajority to amend the constitution. In effect, they’re advocating allowing a minority of voters to have veto power over amendments.
That’s a very bad idea. We should leave it to the collective wisdom of voters to decide whether a proposed constitutional amendment is sound, unwise or unnecessary. A simple majority should be trusted to make that decision.
After all, the overwhelming majority of issues decided by the North Dakota Legislature and local governments are decided by a simple majority vote. By requiring a supermajority, it would become much more difficult to alter the constitution to change with the times.
Let’s dispense with the idea that this is a tool that has been used promiscuously. Since North Dakota became a state in 1889, voters have considered 514 ballot measures, 52 of which have been proposed constitutional amendments. Voters rejected more of those initiated constitutional amendments than they approved.
It’s hardly a mechanism that is spiraling out of control, as the supermajority approval crowd would have you believe. In fact, legislators are far more likely to propose changing the constitution than citizens are.
North Dakota voters have shown themselves to be quite deliberative in amending the constitution.
They rejected a state lottery several times before deciding, in 2002, to allow North Dakota to join a multi-state lottery. By then, surrounding states had lotteries, and North Dakotans got sick of seeing all that money going somewhere else.
They soundly voted in 1932 to amend the constitution to repeal Prohibition after thrashing the idea just four years earlier. But here’s a sobering thought for those who want to impose a 60% majority: The majority of voters who wanted to end Prohibition was 53.8%, a very solid majority but far short of the supermajority advocated.
Let that sink in as you think about what kind of monkey wrenches a dedicated minority could throw in the cogs of self-governance by demanding supermajority support to amend the constitution.
But one of the most important measures to promote transparency and ethics, an amendment to create the state Ethics Commission and to require disclosure of the source of money spent to influence statewide and legislative races as well as ballot measures, wouldn’t have cleared the bar.
Voters in 2018 handily approved the Ethics Commission amendment by 53.6% — about the same majority as decades earlier decided to end Prohibition — but a level well below the supermajority bar.
That’s not good government. So if this fiasco manages to get on the ballot, North Dakota voters should reject this wrongheaded idea.