North Dakota AG: Possible fraud in petitions for ballot item

July 15, 2022 GMT

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — An investigation into potential fraud by people who gathered signatures for a failed ballot initiative to term-limit North Dakota legislators will be referred to a county prosecutor for possible charges, Attorney General Drew Wrigley said Friday.

Wrigley said an investigation by his office, the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation, and the secretary of state’s office would be handed over to Ward County next week.

Secretary of State Al Jaeger in March said a review by his office and the state bureau had found numerous violations, including signatures “likely forged” in the presence of a notary public. The review also found petition workers were paid bonuses based on their production, and a “significant number” of signatures came from residents of other states.

Allegations and prosecutions for petition fraud are not new in North Dakota, but they are rare.

Citizen initiatives let residents bypass lawmakers and get proposed state laws and constitutional amendments on ballots if they gather enough signatures from voters. Signature gatherers are often paid, but state law forbids organizers from paying based on the number of signatures they get.

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State law makes it a felony to sign more than two names other than one’s own to a petition, punishable by up to five years in prison. A misdemeanor, for signing one or two names other than one’s own, could result in up to a year in jail.

The measure’s sponsoring committee includes several lawmakers linked to the ultraconservative Bastiat Caucus, as well as several new GOP district chairmen. The initiative sought to limit lawmakers to eight cumulative years each in the House and Senate, and limit governors to no more than two elected terms.

Jared Hendrix, chairman of the committee, declined comment Friday. In March, he said that Jaeger “purposefully and unlawfully denied residents the ability to place term limits on the November 2022 ballot.”

The case is one of three involving alleged petition-gathering fraud that is under review for possible legal action, Wrigley told The Associated Press.

One of the others was for an initiative to make it more difficult to amend the state constitution by raising the required voter approval from a simple majority to 60% and to limit a measure to a single subject. Jaeger in May rejected that, saying nearly 6,000 signatures were invalid and petitions turned in by three circulators had errors that included signatures from residents of other states.

Wrigley said that case has been referred to prosecutors in Stark and Ward counties.

Wrigley said no charges would be brought against backers of the initiative, but only potentially those hired to gather signatures. He said it was “clear to us” that the committee “felt very much duped by some of the people they hired.”

Wrigley’s office also is reviewing alleged discrepancies in signatures on candidate filing petitions from longtime Burleigh County Commissioner Mark Armstrong. Wrigley said his office is handling the case because Armstrong oversaw the state’s attorney as a commissioner.

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Armstrong did not immediately return a message Friday seeking comment.

A decade ago, 15 defendants — most of them North Dakota State University football players— pleaded guilty to faking names on petitions for two statewide initiatives. The proposals, which were thrown out, sought to legalize medical marijuana and establish an outdoor heritage fund.

The Legislature subsequently toughened potential penalties by adding a felony charge.