Petition sponsors seek to protect initiated measure process

Ralph Muecke at the North Dakota Watchdog Network booth explains a proposed ballot measure to a fairgoer last Thursday in the Commercial II Building at the North Dakota State Fair.

MINOT, N.D. — Ralph Muecke says he’s given some quick civics lessons at the North Dakota State Fair. But once North Dakota fairgoers understand the intent behind a proposed ballot measure on voter initiatives, they pick up the pen to sign.

Muecke, of Gladstone, who has been helping staff the North Dakota Watchdog Network booth in the Commercial II Building, said Thursday that he’s pleased with the number of measure signatures gathered. The watchdog group wants to get an initiated measure on the November 2020 ballot that protects grassroots rights from legislative efforts to make exercising them more difficult.

The proposed measure is a response to discussion by legislators this past session to change the process for constitutional measures.

Legislators agreed to place a measure before voters in November 2020 that says initiatives can only be placed on a general election ballot, and if approved, the Legislature must also then vote to approve. The measure also states if one of the houses fails to give majority vote approval, the initiative goes back on the ballot at the next general election. It can take effect only if voters again approve it with a majority vote.

It’s that altering of the process that bothers the N.D. Watchdog Network.

“We are working on an initiated measure that we want to get on the ballot here in North Dakota that says if our state legislators are going to keep tinkering and monkeying with our right of initiative and referendum, they are going to need to go out and get signatures just like you and I have to do,” Muecke said.

If the proposed measure were to pass, legislators couldn’t do what they did last session in voting to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot that makes the initiated measure process tougher. Legislators also could not resubmit to voters any measure that a majority of voters approved within the past seven years.

The watchdog network’s proposed initiated measure also allows citizens to go directly to the state Supreme Court to challenge legislative actions that threaten the initiated measure and referendum process.

The proposed initiative needs 26,904 signatures by July 6, 2020, to get on the November ballot.

The N.D. Watchdog Network also is making petitions available at its booth to refer legislative action requiring the state auditor to get legislative committee approval to conduct certain audits.

Referral proponents need 13,452 signatures by July 31, which Muecke said will be difficult. Two referral measures — related to Theodore Roosevelt Library funding and exempting communications between legislators and public employees from open records — failed to meet their filing deadlines this month.

Muecke said the 90-day period for collecting more than 13,000 referral signatures is too narrow a window, particularly when up to 10 days of that time can be used by the Secretary of State to review petitions.

“The reason for the initiative and referendum process is to keep our government honest and accountable,” Muecke said. “It’s the one way we have to hold the people we elect accountable and responsible.”

Ballotpedia reports 26 states and the District of Columbia have some sort of initiative and/or referral process. The Initiative & Referendum Institute lists 24 states that have an initiative process. Of those, 18 states allow initiatives for constitutional amendments and 21 allow initiatives for laws.

Muecke said he understands the concern surrounding recent initiatives in North Dakota related to out-of-state interests and money filtering into the process. However, it is an inescapable part of the process, he said.

“If restricted, it would restrict the whole process. It would take away our rights as North Dakota citizens,” he said. “This is government by and for the people. It’s what initiative and referendum is all about.”

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