Alas, anti-democratic forces in North Dakota are copying the bad ideas of South Dakota Republicans in an attempt to shackle the people’s power to initiate changes to their constitution. A group calling itself “Protect North Dakota’s Constitution” is circulating an initiative petition to amend North Dakota’s constitution to prevent amendments to the Constitution:
“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.
…“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, “Proposed Measure Would Tighten Rules for ND Constitutional Changes,” Minot Daily News, 2021.07.29].
Hmm… so advocates who want amendments to contain only a single subject are proposing a two-subject amendment. They say amendments should require a 60% vote, but they will only need a 50% vote for their amendment. As usual, the forces seeking to take the constitution away from citizen control don’t really mean what they say.
The North Dakota petitioners also appear not to mean what they say about being “grassroots“. Multiple critics note that the dozens of sponsors of the measure are “big business, big bankers, and energy lobbyists” pushing back against an Ethics Commission created in 2018 and other healthy checks on corporate influence. Among the well-connected sponsors:
- Wade Boeshans, president of BNI Energy and chairman of the Lignite Energy Council. Gov. Doug Burgum illegally appointed coal executive Boeshans to the Legislature last November.
- Danita Bye, member of the North Dakota Petroleum Council Board of Directors and Burgum appointee to the North Dakota Board of Higher Education.
- Susan Shearer, gravel exec, member of the North Dakota Unemployment Insurance Advisory Council (reappointed by Governor Burgum in 2018), testified to North Dakota Legislature last February that “Unemployment benefits are a necessary evil for our business….”
- Guy Moos, Dickinson baking exec, Gov. Burgum’s favorite North Dakota donut maker, frequent big-money Republican donor.
- Dr. Mary Aaland, Fargo surgeon and another Republican donor.
- Steve Swiontek, longtime Gate City Bank exec, casual Republican donor.
South Dakota Republicans put a single-subject rule on the ballot and persuaded voters to pass that vile and anti-democratic restriction as Amendment Z in 2018. Their intent was to stymie initiated amendments, and Governor Kristi Noem has already put that single-subject rule to work to block marijuana constitutionalization. South Dakota Republicans are now pushing a 60% rule for constitutional amendments in the form of Amendment C, to be voted on at the 2022 primary election, likely mostly by Republican voters who will have other reasons to turn out and a desire to do what their party leaders tell them, stifle the will of the people, and preserve the power of the elite minority in Pierre.
The Fargo Inforum editors agree that letting a minority control the state constitution is a bad idea:
But this group aiming to erode voters’ authority wants you to believe that a simple majority sets the bar too low, making it “almost trivialized” to amend the state constitution.
They want to persuade voters to weaken their voice by requiring a 60% supermajority to amend the constitution. In effect, they’re advocating allowing a minority of voters to have veto power over amendments.
That’s a very bad idea. We should leave it to the collective wisdom of voters to decide whether a proposed constitutional amendment is sound, unwise or unnecessary. A simple majority should be trusted to make that decision.
After all, the overwhelming majority of issues decided by the North Dakota Legislature and local governments are decided by a simple majority vote. By requiring a supermajority, it would become much more difficult to alter the constitution to change with the times [editorial board, “North Dakota Voters Shouldn’t Fall for This Stunt to Weaken Their Voice,” Fargo Inforum, 2021.04.16].
North Dakotans managed to enact an Ethics Commission in 2018 while South Dakota voters saw their 2016 ethics commission repealed by the South Dakota Legislature right away in 2017, then were lured by Republicans into rejecting ethics reform in 2018 and passing instead a restrictive and infinitely malleable single-subject trap. Let’s hope North Dakota voters have similar success in beating back this fresh assault on their watchful democracy… and let’s hope South Dakota voters can follow their northern neighbors’ example!
Timeframe: North Dakota gives petitioners one year to circulate their petitions. The foes of democracy cited above got the green light to circulate on April 22, so they have until April 22, 2022, to collect their 31,164 signatures (4% of the resident population as counted by the 2020 Census). However, if they submit their signatures by February 14, 2022, the sponsors can place their initiative on the June 14 primary ballot. Four months before the election—do you see that, South Dakota Secretary of State Steve Barnett?