GOP lawmakers aim to raise bar for citizen initiatives

March 6, 2019

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota’s Republican-led Legislature on Wednesday continued taking steps toward making it tougher for citizens to amend the state constitution, despite a warning by a longtime lawmaker that it will further deteriorate voters’ faith in government.

Fargo Democratic Sen. Tim Mathern, who was first elected in 1987, said the Legislature’s attempt to silence “the voice” of citizens “brings dissent and discord to our state.”

Despite the plea, senators passed a resolution 34-12 Wednesday that would raise to 60 percent the margin necessary for voters to approve a constitutional amendment, instead of a simple majority. The resolution also would require almost 54,000 signatures to get a measure on the ballot, double the number currently required. The Senate resolution also changes the deadline to submit signatures from 120 days to 240 days prior to an election.

A similar resolution that only specifies the 60 percent margin also breezed through the House by a 65-26 vote.

Votes in both chambers largely fell along party lines, with Democrats dissenting. Senators will now review the House resolution, and vice versa.

Senators also voted last month to allow the Legislature to vote on an initiated measure following voters’ approval. The initiative would go back to voters for final approval if it fails to win lawmakers’ endorsement.

Mathern predicted all of the proposals would fail at the ballot box.

The Legislature’s move to make it more difficult to change the state constitution is inspired in part by some successful ballot measures funded largely by out-of-state interests. Republicans, who hold supermajorities in both chambers, argue attempts to change the state constitution should be difficult.

Hillsboro Republican Rep. Aaron McWilliams said North Dakota should have a high voting standard “if we value our constitution as a strong and secure platform for our state.”

Citizen initiatives allow residents to bypass lawmakers and get proposed state laws and constitutional amendments on ballots if they gather enough signatures from supportive voters. North Dakota is among about two dozen states with some form of an initiative process.

North Dakota voters have approved more than half of proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot since 2014.

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