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Dale Wetzel, Associated Press Writer, Published August 28 2010

North Dakota AG: Measure shouldn’t qualify for vote

BISMARCK – North Dakota’s Constitution requires an initiative petition to include a list of sponsors letting potential supporters know who is backing the measure, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem argued Friday in a state Supreme Court filing.

Stenehjem and attorneys for the initiative, which would abolish ownership restrictions on North Dakota pharmacies, are preparing for Wednesday arguments before the high court that will determine whether the measure is listed on the Nov. 2 general election ballot.

The initiative’s backers say it will help make lower-cost medicine available to North Dakotans by allowing large retailers, including Target, Walmart and Walgreen’s, to sell prescription drugs through their own stores.

North Dakota law says pharmacists must have ownership control of most pharmacies in the state, which the retailers say prevents them from offering nationally advertised discounts on drugs.

Supporters of the change collected almost 14,000 petition signatures to put the measure to a statewide vote. A day after more than 500 petitions were turned in, Secretary of State Al Jaeger rejected them, saying each petition did not have an attached list of the measure’s 25 sponsors.

Attorneys for the initiative have called the omission a minor error and said Jaeger was “exalting form over substance.” But Stenehjem, in a Supreme Court brief filed Friday, said the sponsor list is required by state law and the North Dakota Constitution.

“Not circulating the petitions in their entirety is more than a mere technicality,” Stenehjem’s filing says. “The failure to include the names and addresses of the sponsors raises serious questions regarding the integrity of the initiative process.”

The North Dakota Constitution says the secretary of state must review initiative petitions to make sure they are in proper legal form and have at least 25 sponsors. The petitions may be circulated once the secretary of state approves the final draft.

“The secretary of state shall approve the petition for circulation if it is in proper form and contains the names and addresses of the sponsors and the full text of the measure,” the constitution says. A separate state law says initiative petitions must be circulated “in their entirety.”

Because the pharmacy petitions voters signed did not include a list of sponsors, Jaeger had no choice but to reject them, Stenehjem said.

“Including the names and addresses of the sponsors on petitions is not burdensome,” the attorney general’s filing says. “And the disclosure requirement is material, serving an important purpose ... Electors considering signing a petition may want to look at the sponsor list to determine who is behind the petition.”

Attorneys for the initiative, who filed their own brief last week, said the constitution requires only that the secretary of state be given the sponsor list. They argued the constitution does not say the list must be attached to the petition, a contention Stenehjem said “ignores the fact the petition is one document and is circulated as one document.”

Jaeger never advised the initiative’s supporters to omit the sponsor list from their final petition, and an office guide prepared for North Dakotans interested in the initiative process shows a sample petition with its sponsors included, Stenehjem said.

“There is nothing in Secretary Jaeger’s communications to (initiative supporters) to indicate the petition is anything but a single, complete document that must be circulated in its entirety,” the attorney general wrote.

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