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2021 Legislature might discuss North Dakota voter registration

2021 Legislature might discuss North Dakota voter registration

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North Dakota is the only state without voter registration, but the 2021 Legislature might look at changing that.

The state's June election was held entirely by mail due to the coronavirus pandemic. Secretary of State Al Jaeger's office sent ballot applications to more than 600,000 people, about 159,000 of whom voted. But some officials are concerned about ballot applications sent to people who are dead, have left the state or are from other countries.

Brief discussion about ballot applications surfaced in a May meeting of the Legislature's Budget Section to accept federal coronavirus aid for election administration. Rep. David Monson, R-Osnabrock, brought up constituents' concerns about receiving many ballot applications for ineligible people, sent based on driver's licenses.

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"I think of how many other people are getting them and the fraud that could be going on or could happen," Monson said.

"I think the Legislature next session has to look at the very question that Rep. Monson just brought up," Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, said. "Are we going to actually have a voter registration system run through the secretary of state's office and not through the department of motor vehicles?"

Jaeger said North Dakota's current system is simple and he expressed confidence that only qualified voters cast ballots for the June election.

"Right now I'm not convinced that any changes should be made," the longtime secretary of state told the Tribune. "We should be allowed to work with the system that we have now and continue to refine it and use it."

'Everyone knows everyone'

North Dakota's 1895 Legislature enacted voter registration. After a study, the 1951 Legislature repealed voter registration and left it optional for cities. Numerous bills have since proposed reenacting voter registration, to no avail.

The Legislature's 2015-16 interim Judiciary Committee studied voter registration, but made no recommendations to the 2017 Legislature.

The secretary of state's office maintains a central voter file of who has voted, supplemented with information from the state Department of Transportation.

Holmberg, first elected in 1976, said the state would have to be willing to accept federal requirements for voter registration if the 2021 Legislature were to make such a change. He expects some kind of discussion next session.

North Dakota has remained the only state without voter registration "because what we had worked," Holmberg said.

"It was always 'everyone knows everyone,' which was true when I started, probably," he said. That might not be the case anymore with consolidated polling places, he added.

Monson is concerned by driver's license information feeding the central voter file. Temporary agriculture workers, many of them from abroad, hold North Dakota driver's licenses, he said.

"When they use that as their criteria to send out an application to vote, to get a ballot, that's not right, in my estimation," Monson said, citing a woman in his district who received 17 ballot applications  this year for farm workers she has employed in the last 10 years.

He expects voter registration to be "a hot topic" in 2021, but he's unsure of supporting it. 

"There might be other ways to solve it," Monson said. "I'm kind of proud of the fact that we're honest here in North Dakota, and we have a real simple system, and nobody can accuse of us of not allowing everybody to vote ... but I think we've got to get a handle on the way we've been doing it."

House Minority Leader Josh Boschee, D-Fargo, also plans to hear about voter registration in 2021. Such a move could be done in "a North Dakota way," but he acknowledged public resistance to voter registration. 

Boschee was Democrats' 2018 nominee for secretary of state. He noted frustration he heard from county auditors about whose responsibility it is to update the central voter file. He supports a staff person or a contract with the state Information Technology Department to manage the database.

Jaeger said his office is in charge of maintaining and updating the central voter file, with data from counties, the Department of Transportation, the Division of Vital Records and citizens.

'It's very simple'

Jaeger said his office has "consistently advised" the Legislature against voter registration, pointing to the costs, federal requirements and issues related to voter registration drives. He's not surprised a 2021 bill might emerge.

Most North Dakotans rely on their driver's license as voter ID.

"In North Dakota, it's very simple," Jaeger said. He pointed to the Legislature's recent interim study and how little has changed since then. It could cost about $10 million to implement voter registration, according to the study.

The secretary of state's office disseminated the June ballot applications to about 600,000 people in the central voter file so as not to "overlook" anyone, Jaeger said. About 90,000 of those applications were returned as undeliverable. Those names are being purged from the database.

"I'm confident that the people who received ballots were qualified electors," said Jaeger, who added he understands the concerns.

Boschee doesn't fault Jaeger too much for the undeliverable applications since the goal was to provide all voters with applications; however, "that shined a bright light on the fact that the central voter file needs some work," he said.

More than 150,300 people requested ballots for the November election on their June applications. It's unclear how the November election will be fully administered. Thirty-three of North Dakota's 53 counties allow for voting by mail.

'I just think we can be better'

Those involved in elections on the local level say a cleanup of the central voter file would help.

Bottineau County Auditor Lisa Herbel, whose county shares an international border, has dealt before with ballot applications being sent to vacationing Canadians, foreign farm workers, dead people and former residents.

In 2018, she sent absentee ballot applications to active and inactive Bottineau County voters based on the central voter file, due to expected interest in a ballot measure to legalize marijuana.

One 2020 ballot application went to family of a man who died 20 years ago, she said.

"That's not ever a good thing to do to somebody," Herbel said. "That doesn't look good when it's hard enough losing somebody, but to get reminded like that, and I don't like that my name was on those envelopes, so I just think we can get better."

She is not totally opposed to voter registration, and believes that with current technology, states and agencies can better communicate updates about deaths and moves. More staff could help, too.

North Dakota County Auditors Association Executive Director Donnell Preskey Hushka doesn't sense an appetite among lawmakers for change. County auditors appear mixed, she said.

"I think some people might say North Dakota is smart for not having (voter registration), but then on the other side, you have to also ask why don't we have it and are we missing out on something because we don't have it?" she said. 

More communication between the state's Department of Transportation, Division of Vital Records and Jaeger's office would help, she said. The association would "fully support" efforts to clean up the central voter file, she added.

"We have been meeting with state officials for years on this issue and asking for some accountability and some change," she said. 

Jaeger said his office receives "continual updates and continual information" from the other two agencies, but deaths occurring outside North Dakota aren't reported through the system.

North Dakota Native Vote hasn't seen voter registration on the horizon, said Nicole Donaghy, executive director of the organization that advocates civic engagement on reservations. She points to other issues such as Internet access as more pressing. 

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"The possibility of having (voter registration) could help, but I don't know," Donaghy said.

Mail-in ballots can be a barrier to people who are on a limited income and can't afford $2 in postage or make the drive to a post office, she said.

Safety amid the pandemic is the No. 1 concern for November, she added. The organization plans to get the word out "in a safe way" for the fall election with help from residents of North Dakota's five tribal nations.

A federal judge in April approved an agreement between North Dakota and two tribes that settled two lawsuits over the state's requirement that voters have ID with a provable street address -- a perceived barrier to Native Americans living on reservations where streets address often don't exist.

The deal includes provisions to ensure affected voters have valid IDs and can meet the address requirement, and allows for tribes to quickly verify "set-aside" ballots, to be counted after a voter proves his or her eligibility.

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

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