North Dakota’s Initiated Measure Reformers Should Look to Montana


TOM STROMME/Tribune Shane Goettle, a member of the committee sponsoring Marsy's Law, speaks at a press conference in the state capitol on Tuesday morning prior to petitions, shown in front of podium, being delivered to the Secretary of State's office. In back from left are Marsha Lembke, Burleigh County Sheriff Pat Heinert, Kelly Leben of the Burleigh County Sheriff's Department, Lacee Anderson, Kathleen Wrigley and Nicole Peske. For a video of the press conference go to

I’m not exactly a fan of legislating at the ballot box, or direct democracy generally. But in particular, I don’t believe it’s a good idea to enact complicated public policy merely through a vote of the people.

Does anyone really believe that harried voters, already asked to be informed on national and state and local candidates, also have time to be up to speed on initiated measure proposals which can consist of dozens of pages of complicated legal language?

Let’s not kid ourselves. Most voters never read these ballot measures. Instead they vote based on their impressions from the marketing campaigns around the measures. Which often means that whoever can buy the most marketing wins the battle.

Is that how we want to make law?

Currently an interim committee created by the Legislature is looking at ways to reform the initiated measure process. Some have accused them of wanting to do away with the process altogether, an outcome I’ll admit to desiring, but that’s unlikely. More likely is that we get some sort of change to the process.

Those considering which changes to propose ought to look to Montana, which is a point I make in my print column today:

North Dakota should consider a provision like one in Montana which prohibits a single ballot measure from making multiple changes to the law.

Interestingly, that requirement was the reason why the Montana Supreme Court struck down that state’s iteration of Marsy’s Law. They argued that the measure’s multiple changes to the state constitution weren’t closely related and thus the measure itself was illegal.

The benefit of such a requirement is obvious. It would ensure that ballot measures are simpler and easier to understand.

The initiated measure process is a blunt instrument. The ballot box is not a venue for nuanced debate about the fine points of legal language. While I’d prefer not to legislate at the ballot box at all, if we’re going to do so it’d be better if voters were asked to decide on simpler proposals.