Port: Proposed ballot measure would create open primaries, ranked-choice voting, put the new ethics commission in charge of redistricting

Ellen Chaffee and Richard Jensen.jpg
Local Fargo "pro-democracy" activist Richard Jensen and North Dakotans for Public Integrity co-leader Ellen Chaffee hold the "Courage Award" that Chaffee and co-leader Dina Butcher received at a national summit in Nashville over the weekend for their work on getting Measure One passed last fall. Chaffee said the award really belongs to North Dakotans who voted for the ethics and anti-corruption amendment. Barry Amundson / The Forum
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MINOT, N.D. — In the 2018 election cycle a group calling itself North Dakotans for Public Integrity, and backed with a mountain of money from national left-wing groups and Hollywood activists , pushed through a constitutional amendment creating a statewide ethics commission.

Now in the 2020 cycle, the same group is pushing for a new constitutional amendment.

A draft of the proposal I obtained indicates that, if passed in its current form, it would put the new ethics commission in charge of post-census redistricting.

Currently, the Legislature is in charge of that process.

Democrats have long tried to claim that gerrymandering — and not their own policy choices, crummy candidate recruitment, and campaign incompetence — is why Republicans have dominated state politics for about the last 30 years.


The draft amendment (which you can read in full below) also makes numerous changes to how we choose candidates and count votes in elections.

Some, like a provision aimed at helping deployed soldiers vote and another requiring that state election machines create a paper trail for votes, don't seem very controversial.

Others represent an enormous departure from how we currently run elections, which are sure to draw blowback.

For instance, the draft would create an "open primary" system. Currently, when ballots are cast in the June primary, voters must choose which party's candidates they're voting for. You don't have to prove that you're a Republican or a Democrat, but if you select the GOP ballot, you can't also vote in the Democratic races, and vice versa.

You have to choose which party you're going to help select candidates for.

The NDPI proposal would put all of the candidates on the same ballot, and the top four candidates for each office, regardless of party, would appear on the November ballot.

There would be changes there, too. Voters would be asked to rank up to four candidates (first choice, second choice, etc.).

If one candidate gets a majority of the first-choice votes, they win.


If no candidate gets a majority, the candidate with the lowest total is eliminated, and their votes are redistributed to the second choice of the voters who cast those ballots.

On it goes until someone gets a majority. This process is called "instant runoffs."

I'm not sure it's fair to voters to lump so many disparate proposals together in one initiative. Perhaps the final draft won't include some of these proposals, or maybe it will be split into multiple measures. A message from Ellen Chaffee, a former Democratic Lt. Governor candidate who is the organizing force behind NDPI, accompanying the draft asks recipients not to distribute it.

The recipients were being asked to consider being on the sponsoring committee. The draft was leaked by one of them to me.

As for the proposals themselves, tasking the ethics commission with post-census redistricting before it has even managed to get itself up and running with the duties tasked to it in the last election seems unwise.

Also, what problem is this solving?

Is there evidence of gerrymandering in North Dakota aside from partisan Democratic griping about election outcomes?

Open primaries are a terrible idea.


Republicans should get to choose who the Republican candidates are.

Democrats should get to choose who the Democratic candidates are.

North Dakota's process for this is already too open in that it allows people who may not be Republicans (or Democrats) to vote for the party's candidates.

The political parties are private entities. They should be allowed to use whatever processes they design to choose their candidates. Those who don't like those processes are free to run as independents.

Ranked voting, too, seems like a mistake. Again, what problem is this solving? In 16 years of writing about politics in North Dakota, I sense that the electorate, though maybe not always happy with a given vote's outcome, generally agree that those outcomes do reflect the will of the people.

Why reinvent the wheel?

You can expect that some version of this proposal will probably be on the November ballot. As I mentioned, Chaffee and her group usually have some deep political pockets behind them. In the 2018 cycle, they spent over a quarter of a million dollars on paying people to collect signatures for their initiative .

They can undoubtedly buy their way onto the ballot in 2020 as well.

But will voters buy their ideas?

In her message, Chaffee told potential sponsoring committee members they must have their notarized forms into her by March 3. Chaffee's committee would have to get their measure approved by the Secretary of State and submit nearly 27,000 petition signatures by June 8 to make the November ballot.

That's a lot of signatures on a relatively short timeline. But, again, when you have the money to pay signature collectors, that process isn't so arduous.

Here's the full proposal:

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Rob Port, founder of, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Listen to his Plain Talk Podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RobPort.

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 Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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