Deep pocketed interests routinely buy their way onto North Dakota’s ballot

Criticize North Dakota’s initiated measure laws, the process whereby citizens can collect signatures and enact policy directly through a vote, and you’ll be targeted for scorn and personal attacks.

There are many in North Dakota and beyond who believe that initiated measures are a purer form of democracy than what we get from the Legislature where evil lobbyists and well-monied interests hold sway.

This is a fairy tale.

While lawmakers are certainly lobbied, and while all sorts of interests throw their weight around in Bismarck when the Legislature is in session, if you’re concerned about powerful interests having undue influence over policy the initiated measure process has problems which cannot be ignored.

Interests with deep pockets routinely buy their way onto the statewide ballot in North Dakota, completely bypassing the legislative process with all the checks and balances from multiple chambers and multiple branches of government incumbent to it.

This week a local group calling themselves North Dakotans for Public Integrity filed over 30,000 signatures with the Secretary of State’s office to back a ballot measure which would embed an ethics commission in the state constitution.

But this local group is a front. Standing behind them, according to campaign disclosures, is a coalition of far left groups with names like End Citizens United, Represent.US, and Voters Right to Know. Together these groups have poured over $360,000 into the ballot measure campaign already.

A campaign which has used a chunk of that money to pay petitioners to collect signatures.

This week, too, I spoke with Gary Emineth on my radio show. In addition to being a candidate for the state Senate in Bismarck, Emineth is also the chairman of an initiated measure campaign to close a loophole in the state constitution which could allow non-citizen voting.

I got Emineth to disclose to me that his group is paying petition circulators. He also admitted to getting something like $100,000 from an out-of-state group he declined to name (he hasn’t yet had to file any campaign disclosures with the state).

In the 2016 election cycle, the Marsy’s Law campaign was funded almost exclusively by eccentric California billionaire Henry Nicholas, who bankrolled his policy pet project in a number of states.

In the 2014 election cycle, conservation activist groups like Ducks Unlimited threw millions at a ballot measure to create an outdoor heritage fund.

Do you see the trend?

The conventional wisdom is that the Legislature is the “good old boys club” while initiated measures are a purer form of legislating.

This is bunkum. At least the Legislature, for all of its faults, has a process with checks and balances which dampen the influence of big money groups.

That’s just not true with initiated measures.

It may be anathema to the chest-thumping populists among us, but direct democracy is a poor way to make public policy.

Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Follow him on Twitter at @RobPort

COMMENTS