Proposed measure would tighten rules for ND constitutional changes

Petitioners want tighter rules for constitutional changes

JIll Schramm/MDN Nathan Allen shares information on a proposed constitutional measure to tighten the rules for voter-approved constitutional measures as a fair-goer considers a petition in the Commercial II building at the North Dakota State Fair Monday.

Supporters of a proposed ballot measure to tighten the rules on constitutional initiatives say changing North Dakota’s constitution is just too easy.

“The goal is to provide our constitution with a higher level of respect than what we think it is getting right now,” said Jeff Zarling, Williston, who co-chairs Protect North Dakota’s Constitution with retired Maj. Gen. Mike Haugen of Fargo.

Zarling said there’s a growing concern over measures popping up every election cycle to change North Dakota’s constitution. Unlike the U.S. Constitution, which hasn’t been amended in nearly three decades, North Dakotans regularly vote on constitutional changes, including many that could be offered as statutory changes instead, he said.

“We just believe that the constitution is attempted to be changed because it’s too easy,” he said.

The proposed measure would limit constitutional initiatives to a single issue and require 60% voter approval for passage. Currently, the threshold is 50%, the same as statutory measures.

Jill Schramm/MDN Volunteers Dana Gilbert, left, and Jessica Jaworski give people entering the North Dakota State Fair an opportunity Sunday to sign a petition for a proposed constitutional measure imposing term limits on North Dakota’s governor and legislators. Questions about the location of another of the supporters’ petition booth on the edge of the fairgrounds closed the booth briefly until the matter was resolved.

“We look at the constitution as being a foundational document – that it has a rigorous process that it should go through to change,” Zarling said. “If you require 60% of North Dakotans to agree with it, you’re going to have to go through that process of educating people and, probably, ending up with better governance.”

He noted the U.S. Constitution has an even more rigorous process for amendments. A U.S. constitutional amendment may be proposed by a two-thirds vote of both Houses of Congress or, if two-thirds of the states request one, by a convention called for that purpose. The amendment must then be ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures or three-fourths of conventions called in each state for ratification

Dustin Gawrylow with the ND Watchdog Network, which opposes new restrictions on initiatives, said the proposed measure is the latest of several attempts in recent years designed to make initiating measures more difficult.

“It’s just another attempt to diminish the public’s ability to influence their own government,” he said. “It’s asking the voters to give away the rights of themselves and future generations.”

Zarling said the proposed constitutional change doesn’t weaken the rights of voters to initiate measures. The requirements for initiating a measure would not change. Nor does raising the threshold to 60% weaken the voice of the voters, he said. Rather, the higher percentage strengthens their voice in suggesting a mandate, he said.

Gawrylow said if the measure gets on the ballot and passes, it will be the last hurdle placed on voting rights because passing future constitutional measures of any substance will be next to impossible. He said the 60% requirement will kill any grassroots-sponsored measures.

“It’s going to drastically increase the cost of doing these,” he added. “If they wanted to get rid of out of state money, this is not going to do it.”

Zarling argues the 60% threshold won’t make measures more costly for supporters.

“It’s not about marketing. It’s about grassroots connecting,” he said. For instance, Protect ND’s Constitution is focusing on communicating with North Dakotans, giving presentations and holding town hall meetings, he said.

Protect ND’s Constitution has hired paid petition circulators, which Zarling said is necessary given the value of people’s time. Difficulty in getting volunteers has impacted the entire service spectrum and is a reality in petition gathering as well, he said. Petition gathers are required to be North Dakota residents eligible to vote.

Protect ND’s Constitution needs 31,164 signatures to get its proposal on the ballot. Zarling said no decision has been made yet regarding whether to aim for next year’s primary or general election.


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