Plain Talk: Secretary of state candidates debate election integrity, voting, transparency, and more


MINOT, N.D. — Election integrity is a hot-button issue. Rancor continues around the outcome of the 2020 election, with many claiming that, at least nationally, former President Donald Trump was cheated out of another term in the White House by fraud. North Dakota election officials have been flooded with open records requests from people seeking information to prove conspiracy theories about the election.

As it happens, North Dakota’s top election official is on the ballot this cycle. Long-serving incumbent Republican Al Jaeger isn’t running for another seat. State Rep. Michael Howe, a Republican, and Mayville State University administration Jeffrey Powell, a Democrat, are running to replace him. They joined this episode of Plain Talk for a debate about the issues in this campaign, along with my co-host, former Democratic-NPL executive director Chad Oban.

An independent candidate, Charles Tuttle, has filed signatures to be on the ballot in this race. I made the decision not to include him in this discussion because it’s my feeling, given his long history of erratic behavior, and the probability that he’ll draw a very low number of votes, his participation wouldn’t have been a productive use of our time.

“We haven’t seen any problems with the integrity of our elections” in North Dakota, Howe said during the debate, though he said that whoever wins this election needs to “gain the public’s trust back.”

“People get caught up in the cable news cycle. They see things that aren’t related to North Dakota,” Howe added.

Powell agreed though he pressed Howe on the fact that much of the questioning of election outcomes is coming from the right. Howe responded by pointing out that Democrats have questioned election results in the past as well.

Both candidates agreed that many aspects of the Secretary of State’s online services – from accessing campaign finance reports to making business filings – need to be modernized and made more user-friendly. Powell said that while much of the information on things like voting and running for office on the Secretary of State’s website currently was accurate, it’s presented in an out-dated way.

Asked if they would support more rigorous reporting requirements for candidates, Powell said he would require that candidates leverage online tools to make reports almost real-time. “I want it to be live and accurate,” he said. Howe was more non-committal. “I don’t know if it’s going to solve any problems or if we’re going to glean any new information, but sure,” he said.

The candidates also discussed what it’s like to campaign in a very angry, divided political environment, the controversy over a term limits ballot measure that was dismissed from the ballot by the incumbent before being restored by the state Supreme Court, and some of the Secretary of State’s other duties, such as serving on the Land Board and the Emergency Commission.

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