Will 2020 be a Lost Year for Initiated Measures in ND?

Article III of the North Dakota Constitution guarantees the right of the people to initiate or refer laws by petition. Is there anything the state can do to guarantee that right is executed safely in 2020? With high-traffic areas closed and events canceled or postponed, the ability for committees to meet initiated measure requirements appears bleak. Will it be a lost year for initiated measures?

The initiated measure requirements are rather explicit in the ND Constitution. The deadline and signature requirements are all there. To meet those requirements in 2020, committees circulating statutory measure must collect 13,452 signatures. Constitutional measures must collect 26,904. Both would need to be filed with the Secretary of State by July 6th to appear on the November ballot.

Perhaps more damning is the requirement of how signatures are gathered. To qualify, the petition needs to be signed in the “presence” of the petition circulator. In the time of physical distancing, no groups over ten individuals, and major events being canceled, this will prohibit many – if not all – measures from appearing on the ballot.

Petitions must be signed in the presence of the qualified circulator. Signatures collected on an unattended petition constitute an improper signing practice and place all signatures on that copy of petition at risk. Circulators should be near and in control of all petitions as they are being signed. – Secretary of State Document on Measures

The only wiggle room maybe with the term “presence.” Must “presence” be physical presence? Is there a digital way to be in the “presence” of those signing these petitions? Trust me, I know that is a stretch. I’m not a lawyer and I don’t pretend to be one on this site nor on radio. But it may be something for these committees to look into and visit with an actual lawyer. Section 7 of the ND Constitution states that “all decisions of the Secretary of State in the petition process are subject to review by the Supreme Court in exercise of the original jurisdiction.”

This isn’t in support of any potential measure. There are proposals I like and some I dislike. Ultimately, I think they should all have their chance at a vote if enough signatures are provided. Because of this pandemic, gathering those signatures proves to be difficult if not impossible. Yet, I don’t think losing an election year should be met with a shoulder shrug without looking at what can be done.

Tyler Axness
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