Initiative and referendum are rights the citizens of North Dakota established for themselves at the ballot box. Citizens dissatisfied with legislative action or inaction can use these tools to accomplish what they believe needs doing. It’s a populist check on the Legislature’s power.
It came as no surprise when lawmakers recently introduced legislation to make the petition process in support of initiative constitutional measures and referrals more difficult.
Lawmakers looked around the country and saw citizens initiating a wide range of legislative actions — everything from gay marriage to restricting government spending. And last year in North Dakota, there were two cases of fraud related to the petition process for action in support of medical marijuana and using oil and gas tax revenues for a major conservation effort. The combination was bound to get a reaction from lawmakers.
A proposed constitutional amendment has been introduced to make gathering enough signatures for a successful petition more difficult. It requires a minimum number of signatures representing “at least four percent of the resident population from each of at least fifty percent of the counties in the state.” The change is to require that 4 percent not just statewide, but across a larger geographic.
In fairness, bill sponsor Rep. Keith Kempenich’s stated intent is to protect rural citizens by forcing petition drives out of the state’s more urban areas. It will do that at the same time it raises equity issues between values of urban and rural signatures.
Are urban and rural North Dakotans really so different? Voters across the state in the general election strongly supported a measure supposedly guaranteeing the future of agriculture as we know it.
It is, we believe, unnecessary.
Then a bill has been introduced related to the requirements for those people who “carry” petitions. Instead of requiring that the person circulating the petition be 18 years of age, it also demands they have been a resident of the state for three years and have voted in at least one of the last two statewide elections. special elections do not count.
It’s not good enough to be an American citizen and a resident of the state.
The proposal responds to the fraudulent signatures gathered last year by a company that hired students from North Dakota State University, members of the football team. Most of those students would not have been able to meet this requirement.
The bill would make it more difficult to find workers for companies or organizations that hire petition circulators. (Not everyone supports the idea of hiring out signature collections.) How much this would impact future petition drives isn’t clear.
In general, it’s not apparent the state’s process for initiative measures and referrals is broken. These supposed “fixes” do little more than complicate the process, making it more difficult for citizens to “enjoy” their constitutional rights.