ND conservation petitioners may have broken election laws


By Rob Port | Watchdog.org North Dakota Bureau

PETITIONING VOTERS: This photo taken from a Facebook page promoting the Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment shows a petition circulator working outside of a polling location in Jamestown. This activity ultimately drew attention from local law enforcement who seized the petitions after signature collectors refused to move.

JAMESTOWN, N.D. — Tactics used by conservation activists in support of the Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks amendment broke election laws, according to opponents of the ballot measure and an election official in one North Dakota city.

On Tuesday, North Dakotans went to the polls for the state’s primary election. Some of those voters were confronted there by activists circulating a petition to put the constitutional amendment on the ballot which, if passed, would divert hundreds of millions in oil tax revenues into a conservation fund.

Signature collection efforts in Jamestown drew the ire of local election officials, and even inspired a call to law enforcement.

“We asked them to move because they were in violation of the North Dakota Century Code,” Stutsman County Auditor Casey Bradley told the Jamestown Sun. “We pointed that out to them. They argued with us and said we were infringing on their constitutional right,” Bradley said. “We attempted to explain it to them, and they became hostile to us.”

The protests from signature collectors ultimately drew the attention of the Stutsman County Sheriff Chad Kaiser and the Jamestown Police Department, according to the Sun.

Bradley said he believed the petitions had been seized. He also said his department would be pressing criminal charges.

North Dakotans for Common Sense Conservation, a coalition group created to oppose the measure, accused the signature collectors of breaking the law at other locations around the state.

“Reports and evidence gathered from a variety of sources within and outside the NDCSC Coalition show that sponsors of the CWWPA have stationed signature gatherers within close proximity to entrances of voting locations in communities across the North Dakota in an attempt to collect petition signatures from voters entering and exiting voting locations who are voting in today’s statewide election,” a press release sent out by the group on Election Day claimed.

“This violates North Dakota’s election laws,” said Jon Godfread, chairman of the coalition. “And, more importantly, it violates the spirit of North Dakota’s free and open election process, which is supposed to be void of this kind of activity.”

North Dakotans for Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks, the group formed in support of the measure, did not respond to requests for comment.

Section 16.1-10-06 states, “An individual may not ask, solicit, or in any manner try to induce or persuade, any voter within a polling place or within one hundred feet [30.48 meters] from the entrance to the room containing a polling place while it is open for voting to vote or refrain from voting for any candidate or the candidates or ticket of any political party or organization, or any measure submitted to the people.”

Watchdog has reported other questionable signature collection tactics in support of the amendment. Earlier this month, the North Dakota Game & Fish Department acknowledged that two hunter safety instructors were in the wrong when they promoted the petition in class and asked students to sign it.

Game & Fish officials called the use of an auction of goods seized from poachers as a venue to promote the petition “disappointing.”

In the 2012 election cycle, a similar amendment was kept off the ballot when the secretary of state’s office disqualified tens of thousands of signatures as invalid. A subsequent investigation showed a group of paid signature collectors hired by supporters of the petition had forged signatures. Sponsors of the current amendment made public statements about sticking to volunteer signature collectors, but have advertised online for paid petitioners.

You can reach Rob Port at rport@watchdog.org