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Speaking out: Legislation may impact ballot measure and candidate processes

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The regular session of the state’s 68th Legislative Assembly is underway. Numerous bills covering a range of issues are being reviewed by legislative committees and scheduled for floor votes in either the state House of Representatives or the Senate chamber. It’s an intense process even for legislators, so it’s no surprise that voters can find it difficult to keep up. Today’s column aims to inform voters of several bills that impact ballot measure and candidate processes.

A few bills deal with the initiative and referendum (ballot measure) process in North Dakota. House Bill 1324 is sponsored exclusively by Republicans. The bill allocates greater power and protection to the secretary of state when determining whether a petition has enough valid signatures. Meanwhile, House Bill 1230 – also sponsored only by Republicans – provides penalties for petition sponsoring committees should they willfully submit invalid petitions. Without a doubt, sponsors for these bills are reacting to the legal battle surrounding the petition signatures of the term limits measure from 2022. Revisit Jack Dura’s reporting from Sept. 7 if you need a refresher on that legal battle.

The third bill dealing with our initiative and referendum process is the bipartisan Senate Bill 2163. The bill requires that ballot measure summaries printed on our ballots are “written in plain, clear, understandable language using words with common, everyday meaning.”

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As I’ve found in my own research – and have discussed in past columns – the reading ease of ballot language is important. Difficult language increases the likelihood that a voter will abstain from, or vote "No" on, a measure. In an ideal world, voters understand their ballots, can comfortably vote on all issues, and can recognize when a "Yes" vote aligns with their preferences. I see this bill as well-intended and potentially promising. However, the bill raises the question of who ultimately decides what is plain, clear and common language for any given policy issue. Without the mention of a particular standard by which to judge ballot language, the secretary of state and petition sponsoring committees may see things quite differently. I think the bill would be improved with an amendment that clarifies the standards to be used and describes a process for collaboration between petition committees and the secretary of state.

Some other bills focus on candidates rather than ballot measures. Specifically, there are two bills that would compel campaign contribution statements for candidates for school boards. HB 1116 is sponsored only by Rep. Hoverson, a Republican. HB 1257 is bipartisan. As it stands, school board candidates do not currently provide campaign contribution statements. Either of these bills would change that, but the bills differ with regard to which communities are small enough to be exempt from such reporting.

As someone who has run for a school board seat, I was actually surprised to learn that I would not be reporting my campaign contributions. I had been prepared to report my campaign contributions, only to find there was no process for doing so. I’m not sure what other candidates for school boards expect or prefer when it comes to financial reporting. However, it is clear that this proposed legislation has its supporters. The written testimony from citizens that has been submitted online is generally in favor of this legislation.

Do you have thoughts on these bills? You may provide testimony online at ndlegis.gov or in-person at the state capitol when any bill receives a hearing. Additionally, you may visit tinyURL.com/contact-legislators to be directed to an online government form that you can use to contact your state legislators.

Ellie Shockley is a political psychologist, social scientist and education researcher. This column represents her personal views and not the views of any organization. She completed a doctorate at the University of Chicago and postdoctorate at Nebraska. She lives in Mandan. Find her past columns at EllieShockley.com

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