Lawsuit Shines Light On Secretary Of State Al Jaeger's Competency Problem


Last summer I asked Secretary of State Al Jaeger whether or not he’s made a decision about 2014 yet. “Yes, I have,” he told me. “I will seek re-election in 2014.”

When Jaeger completes his current term, he will have been in office for a whopping 22 years, and if he wins another term he’ll be in office for a total of 26.

Just to put that into perspective, in 1992 Clint Eastwood’s The Unforgiven won an Oscar for Best Picture, Bonnie Raitt won a Grammy for “Something To Talk About” and, believe it or not, Jay Leno debuted as the Host of The Tonight Show.

That’s a long time to be in office, and in recent years Jaeger has had what most would agree are some low lights.

The latest is a lawsuit filed by independent candidate Paul Sorum, who wants the 2012 gubernatorial election results for Governor Jack Dalrymple and Democrat Ryan Taylor tossed declaring him, the third place finisher with less than 2 percent of the vote, the victor roughly a year and a half after election day. Sorum’s argument boils down to a paperwork glitch. The candidacy form given out by the Secretary of State’s Office had an error, leaving no space to put in the Lt. Governor candidates as required by state law.

And not only was a bad form used in 2012, but apparently that form has been in use since the 1990’s.

The idea of a court tossing out over 300,000 cast ballots to name someone who got just over 5,000 votes the governor’s office is a little ridiculous, but Sorum has a point. Jaeger’s office messed up, and has been messing up for more than a decade.

Jaeger’s job is running elections and handling things like business filings in the state, and there are a lot of reasons from recent years to question his competency on that front. Here’s a list of Secretary Jaeger’s greatest hits pulled from the SAB archives:

County Submits More Ballots Than It Has Voters

In May of last year federal officials noticed that one North Dakota county – Walsh County, northeast of Grand Forks – cast more ballots than there were voters. This problem apparently flew right by election officials, and didn’t come to light until seven months after the election was certified. It didn’t change the outcome of any races, but in a state where legislative races are often won or lost by razor-thin margins, failing to pick up on an issue like this until months after the election – months after newly-elected legislators completed their legislative session – it’s a pretty big deal.

Millions Wasted On IT Project Boondoggle

For roughly a decade – yes, for about ten years – Secretary Jaeger’s office has been working on an IT project to allow things like business filings to be done online. When I wrote about the issue back in 2010, the project had been on-going for six years and had cost $2 million. I spoke with a legislator today who sits on the Interim Information Technology Committee and he said that as of today the project still isn’t completed. The cost has ballooned, and the next legislative session in 2015 will again have to deal with the issue. I’m told that the cost of the project is now in the $8 million range. There is light at the end of the tunnel. The state’s ITD department has taken over the project (the first project I wrote about in 2010 has been canceled, with the money spent on it for naught), and it’s getting oversight from a new state steering committee for these sort of projects, but it’s worth noting that Jaeger resisted the cancelation of the original project and his office’s mishandling of it was, in the opionion of many, what inspired the creation of the steering committee.

Candidate Paperwork Lost

In 2010 a Libertarian Party candidate for the Public Service Commission was almost left off the ballot because Jaeger’s office lost his paperwork. Ultimately Jaeger decided to put the candidate, Joshua Voytek, on the ballot anyway, but it inspired the Bismarck Tribune to endorse Jaeger’s opponent that year, Corey Mock, citing a “lack of attention to detail and focus.”

Secretary of State’s Office Hugely Inefficient

In addition to the lost candidate paperwork, the Tribune also cited the backlog of work in Jaeger’s office. “[T]he state’s residents learned of significant overtime hours accumulated by Jaeger’s upper level staff, raising questions about his use of resources and his working relationship with the Legislature over funding,” wrote the Tribune.  “And work at the secretary of state’s office has been backed up at times. If the office doesn’t have the staff to get the job done properly, it’s an issue Jaeger should have taken up with the Legislature.” That doesn’t seem to have changed much. In early 2012 I had a horrible experience trying to get a business filing through Jaeger’s office. Jaeger has responded to these problems by cutting down on office hours to let staff get caught up on paperwork. Jaeger has blamed North Dakota’s booming economy for his problems, but other state agencies have faced the same challenges and handled them better than Jaeger did.

2008 Ballot Measure Language Flubbed

In 2008 the North Dakota chapter of Americans for Prosperity put a measure on the ballot to cut income taxes, but shortly after the submission deadline language reviewed and approved by Jaeger and Attorney General Wayne Stenhejem was found to have errors. Parts of the ballot language on the circulated petitions was supposed to have been underlined. The errors were corrected and the measure went forward and was ultimately defeated by voters.

2010 Ballot Measure Language Flubbed

Jaeger made another error with ballot language regarding a measure that would have banned fenced hunting. In fact, it was the exact same error Jaeger made in 2008 with the income tax cuts.  Jaeger admitted the error but allowed the measure to go ahead anyway.

Pharmacy Measure Kept Off Ballot On A Technicality

Jaeger made the right call on this one. Petitions to put a measure on the ballot that would have ended North Dakota’s pharmacy protection laws (which prohibit North Dakotans from enjoying the cost savings and convenience of pharmacies at stores like Walmart and Target) were circulated improperly, and Jaeger was right to dismiss them. But after two other situations in which Jaeger didn’t hold technical errors he made on ballot measures to the same exacting standard, this sticks out like a sore thumb. The pharmacy measure being kept off the ballot in 2010 has derailed the issue, according to supporters I’ve spoken to, and they probably won’t bring the issue up again any time soon.

Millitary Ballots Sent Out Late

In October of 2010 a number of county auditors sent out military ballots late. Granted, they were only days late, and only an estimated 30 ballots were impacted, but deadline wasn’t hit as required by federal law. The ballots were to have been sent out 45 days before the election.