- Associated Press - Saturday, May 31, 2014

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - It seems a simple enough question: Should the filing deadline for the submission of initiated measure petitions be changed from 90 days to 120 days before an election?

The idea is at the heart of Measure 1, a constitutional amendment that North Dakotans will decide in the June 10 primary election. It is the only measure on the ballot, yet it also has become as a key point of debate preceding the November election for secretary of state.

Al Jaeger, a Republican who was first elected in 1992 to the office best known for supervising elections, wants the new deadline to give his office more time to review signature petitions for accuracy and to allow the state Supreme Court an extended period to consider challenges.

Jaeger’s Democratic challenger, April Fairfield, said the change is an “unnecessary limitation” on North Dakotans’ constitutional rights and calls it a sly attempt to deter voter-driven ballot measures.

“The bottom line is that it is a backdoor way to try and reduce the number of measures on the ballot,” said Fairfield, a former state lawmaker who now works as an executive director for a nonprofit in Bismarck. “It’s reducing our rights and not about giving them more time.”

Jaeger, who is the longest-serving Republican official in the North Dakota Capitol, maintains that’s not the case.

“The intent is to safeguard the process and the integrity of it,” he said.

North Dakota lawmakers last year overwhelmingly endorsed the measure pushed by Jaeger, who said the proposal was spurred by an election scandal in 2012 involving 10 North Dakota State University football players that kept two measures off the ballot. The football players were accused of faking signatures on the ballot measure petitions they were paid to circulate. They eventually pleaded guilty to misdemeanor election fraud and were sentenced to probation and community service.

North Dakota did impose a deadline for submitting petitions at 120 days from 1919 to 1978, when it was changed to 90 days.

The state currently has the second-latest filing deadline in the nation, behind Oklahoma’s deadline of 60 days prior to an election. The average deadline for submission of initiated petition is almost 140 days.

Under current North Dakota law, the secretary of state has 35 days to determine if there is a sufficient number of valid signatures to place a measure on the ballot. After the 35-day review period, and only 55 days prior to an election, the ballot must be certified. Jaeger said that could potentially leave the state’s high court with no time to consider an appeal, if the petition backers challenge the secretary of state’s decision. If the state Supreme Court doesn’t rule on the appeal before the ballots are completed, the measure would go before voters.

“We came close in 2012,” Jaeger said.

The proposal gives petition circulators more time to appeal and allows the state Supreme Court to “make a reasoned decision,” he said.

“That process protects the rights of everyone,” Jaeger said.

Fairfield said moving up the petition filing deadline by 30 days from the current August deadline will make it impossible to collect signatures at North Dakota’s State Fair in Minot, which attracts more than 100,000 people each July. The fair can account for as much as 30 percent of petition signatures, she said.

“That is going to have a chilling effect,” Fairfield said.

“I doubt that the signatures obtained at a state fair make or break the successful circulation of petitions,” Jaeger said. “To be successful, a petition circulation drive should cover the entire state, not just a state fair.”

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