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North Dakota turnout sets record; GOP maintains dominance

North Dakota turnout sets record; GOP maintains dominance

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Interim Burleigh County Auditor Allan Vietmeier, center, speaks with election workers outside the City/County Building on Tuesday night in downtown Bismarck. As vehicles would arrive, the election workers would load the dollies with boxes of ballots to be taken inside for counting.

A record number of voters turned out for the general election in North Dakota, and Republicans kept their dominance on the Legislature and state offices.

Unofficial turnout was 363,006 voters, about 62% of those eligible, besting the nearly 349,945 voters in 2016. Longtime Secretary of State Al Jaeger said the presidential election and the state's population growth likely fueled the larger turnout. Some political observers agreed.

"Obviously people were very passionate about President (Donald) Trump in North Dakota," Republican Party Chairman Rick Berg said. "I think the contrast between Democrats and Republicans at the national level, I think that resonated with the average North Dakota farmer, rancher, small businessman, employee. They're concerned about their future."

University of North Dakota political science professor Mark Jendrysik was a poll worker in Grand Forks. He said he noted many first-time and irregular voters.

"People would come in and would ask us to explain the ballot. Several people said they were first-time voters, and that was young people but also older folks as well," Jendrysik said. "That's anecdotal, but I think it's refreshing, I would say, to be honest."

Trump likely was the driving factor for turnout, according to Jendrysik.

"That's often the case. Charismatic political leaders bring out new voters," he said. "Barack Obama certainly did, and I think Trump also has."

About 75% of North Dakota ballots were cast before Election Day, comprising early voting, and absentee and mail-in ballots, according to Jaeger.

County canvassing boards meet Monday. The State Canvassing Board meets Nov. 13 to certify the state's election results.

GOP dominance

President Trump posted another lopsided victory Tuesday in North Dakota, getting 65% of the vote, compared to 63% four years ago. Republican U.S. Rep. Kelly Armstrong also cruised, defeating Democrat Zach Raknerud with 69% of the vote. A Democrat last won North Dakota's House seat in 2008. A Democrat presidential candidate hasn't won the state since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

Republican Gov. Doug Burgum captured 66% of the vote in his bid for reelection.

Both Democrats and Republicans on Tuesday said they were worried about the spread of the coronavirus and that it influenced their vote for governor, according to The Associated Press.

Sean McLean, a 79-year-old retired university professor and Vietnam War veteran, voted for Trump four years ago and did so Tuesday -- but he didn't vote for Burgum.

“His handling of the virus has been totally stupid,” McLean told AP. “I actually think he’s a Democrat.”

Becky Rath, 51, a food and beverage manager from Bismarck, said she supported Burgum despite increased criticism of his handling of the coronavirus.

“I think he’s been doing as good as he could,” Rath said. “It’s a tough job.”

Incumbent Republican state Capitol officeholders also had little challenge from their Democratic-NPL opponents. State Auditor Josh Gallion and Public Service Commissioner Brian Kroshus each got 68% of the vote in their races, as they defeated Patrick Hart and Casey Buchmann, respectively.

Republican incumbent Insurance Commissioner Jon Godfread had no Democratic challenger and got 98% of the vote.

Republican Thomas Beadle defeated Democrat Mark Haugen in the race to succeed Republican Kelly Schmidt, who decided last year against running for another four-year term. Beadle got 66% support.

State Superintendent Kirsten Baesler, who received a letter of support from the Republican Party for the nonpartisan office, got 59% of the vote in her race against Brandt J. Dick.

Roger Johnson was the last Democrat to hold a statewide office at the Capitol. He resigned as agriculture commissioner in 2009 to become head of the National Farmers Union.

Measures go down

The two measures on the ballot Tuesday were soundly defeated.

Voters overwhelmingly rejected an effort to expand the State Board of Higher Education to 15 members. The size of the board will remain at eight members, as 73% of voters said no to Measure 1. The measure also proposed other reforms to the board, such as increasing members’ term length from four to six years.

The question before voters was whether a bigger board would better serve the state's higher education institutions or if an expansion might make it more difficult for the board to build consensus.

“I don’t know that we’ll see something like this come back, but I think we’ll continue to have conversations about, ‘Is the State Board of Higher Education working as best as it could?’” said Rep. Shannon Roers Jones, R-Fargo.

She favored establishing two boards, one focused on the state’s research universities and the second on the state’s other colleges and universities, to allow members to be more specialized and to ease their workloads.

Sixty-two percent of voters were against Measure 2, which would have altered the way the state constitution is amended. Backers of the measure saw it as a simple way to keep out-of-state influences out of North Dakota. Opponents said it was an attempt at a power grab by the Legislature.

Sen. Dick Dever, R-Bismarck, said he was disappointed that the measure didn’t pass but that the opposition “acknowledged the need for change and suggested it should be something other than Measure 2."

“My hope is they will take the lead on that,” Dever said.

The measure’s chances of passing were hindered by the fact that it was introduced by the Legislature, according to Dever. In any future efforts, “whatever happens needs to be an initiated measure," he said.

Local races

North Dakota Board of Medicine Executive Secretary Bonnie Storbakken will be the newest judge in the South Central Judicial District. She had 61% of the vote and defeated Assistant Burleigh County State's Attorney Scott Miller. She'll fill the seat held by Judge Thomas Schneider, who didn't seek reelection after serving behind the bench since the 1980s.

Storbakken served as a policy adviser to former North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple and before that was commissioner of the state Department of Labor and Human Rights. The judgeship race was her first attempt at elected office.

“I’m just humbled when I look at the numbers and the amount of people who marked the bubble next to my name,” she said.

Miller declined comment.

Longtime Burleigh County Commissioner Jerry Woodcox lost in his bid for another term. He has served since 2000.

Woodcox said it's tough to gauge why voters did not reelect him, but that they might have wanted to see a change in the makeup of the commission.

"It was a real close race," he said. "I think I did the best I could."

Reach Jack Dura at 701-250-8225 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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