North Dakota Farmer's Union Spent $41,000 On "Volunteer" Referendum Effort

The North Dakota Farmer’s Union turned in signatures today to send a partial rollback of North Dakota’s corporate farming ban to the voters. They needed just under 14,000 signatures to refer the bill, which was passed by lawmakers earlier this year, and they turned in over 22,000.

NDFU and its partner organizations in this endeavor were quick to brand the petition drive as a “volunteer” and “grassroots” effort, as the Fargo Forum reports:

More than 250 volunteers and Farmers Union staff and members collected the signatures in just 75 days, President Mark Watne said during a news conference at the Capitol, calling it “truly a grass-roots effort” that validated the group’s position.

“Forty-six members of Dakota Resource Council joined 250 volunteers from NDFU, The Catholic Conference and the Independent Beef Association of North Dakota in circulating the petition,” reported the Bismarck Tribune.

But I’m not sure these claims of a volunteer, grassroots effort pass the smell test.

For one thing, the NDFU submitted an Intent to Remunerate form with the Secretary of State’s office, something that is required when a ballot measure or referendum group plans to pay petition circulators. You can see the form below.

Of course, the existence of a form like this doesn’t mean that the signatures on these petitions weren’t collected by an army of volunteers, so I checked in with Kayla Pulvermacher, the Director of Member Advocacy for NDFU, and asked her for some details on paid petition circulators versus volunteers.

North Dakota Farmer’s Union spent almost $2.00 per petition signature. Which doesn’t exactly sound like a “volunteer” or a “grassroots” effort to me.

“We had over 250 unpaid volunteers getting petitions across the state, and they gathered over 21,000 in a very short period of time – the very definition of grassroots,” Pulvermacher told me in an email. “Some of our staffers (around 17) were also involved in gathering petitions, and they were paid as required by law.”

Ok, so that sounds like volunteers did most of the work, but when I sent Pulvermacher a follow-up email asking for a breakdown of the signatures gathered by volunteers versus signatures gathered by paid petitioners she didn’t respond.

But according to the Secretary of State’s office the organizers of the petition drive have filed financial disclosures. The official committee formed to circulate the petitions – officially the Corporate Farming Referendum Sponsoring Committee – didn’t report any expenditures, but the North Dakota Farmer’s Union sure did.

“The money used to pay circulators and the other expenses incurred was paid by the North Dakota Farmer’s Union and according to the NDCC North Dakota Farmers Union is required to file an Independent Expenditure which they did,” Lee Ann Oliver, Elections Specialist at the Secretary of State’s office, told me in an email yesterday.”

According to that report, which you can see here, NDFU spent over $41,000 on the petition drive including over $39,000 in payments to NDFU employees.

Meaning that North Dakota Farmer’s Union spent almost $2.00 per petition signature. Which doesn’t exactly sound like a “volunteer” or a “grassroots” effort to me.

That sounds like a powerful political group buying their issue onto the ballot. Which is ironic given what will undoubtedly be the anti-corporate, thoroughly populist tone of the coming referendum campaign.

UPDATE: From Twitter:

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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