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Dale Wetzel, Associated Press Writer, Published October 07 2010

Mock, Jaeger face off in debate

BISMARCK – Republican Secretary of State Al Jaeger is partly to blame for North Dakotans not getting a chance to vote this fall on whether to repeal the state’s pharmacy ownership restrictions, Democratic rival Corey Mock argued in a debate Wednesday.

Jaeger and Mock, a medical clinic director and Democratic state House member from Grand Forks, squared off Wednesday at a Bismarck candidate forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters.

Jaeger’s office reviewed a voter initiative that sought to change North Dakota’s pharmacy ownership law before its backers started circulating the petition last year. The measure’s goal was to repeal a state law that requires pharmacists to own a controlling stake in most North Dakota pharmacies. Its supporters say it would give North Dakotans access to less expensive prescription drugs.

When activists turned in their petitions last August, Jaeger rejected them, saying each one lacked a required list of the measure’s sponsors. The North Dakota Supreme Court later affirmed Jaeger’s decision.

Mock said during Wednesday’s debate that his own curiosity about the initiative process would have prompted him to check petition locations to see if the right procedures were being followed. Had Jaeger done the same, he could have alerted the initiative’s supporters to the problem, Mock said.

“We’ve got this mentality right now in the secretary of state’s office to shoot for mediocrity, to do the job, but not to do the job exceptionally well,” Mock said. “You are always the secretary of state, and you can do this service to those people – go in there and check the process.”

Jaeger said his office routinely provides help and suggestions for initiative circulators, and said that a booklet on his office’s website gives step-by-step directions on how an initiative petition should be circulated.

Activists who were circulating other measures did not make the same mistake, and the Supreme Court’s ruling on the pharmacy dispute said his instructions were clear, Jaeger said.

“We had 10 petitions circulating this past election and everybody understood what the process was,” Jaeger said. “We have provided the information ... The petition process in North Dakota really does go fairly well.”

The debate gave Mock a new forum to raise his criticism of Jaeger’s office administration. North Dakota businesses cannot file routine paperwork electronically because of chronic development problems of an office technology project Jaeger began exploring six years ago, Mock said.

North Dakota’s secretary of state licenses contractors and other businesses. The lack of online filing “really doesn’t send the message that North Dakota is working with the businesses like we should,” Mock said.

Jaeger said his office has overcome a five-week lag in processing business paperwork over the summer, reducing the turnaround time to a few days.

He said he was frustrated, too, by delays in the technology project, which he said were mostly beyond his control.

When the project is completed, “it’s really going to be exciting,” Jaeger said. “They’ll be able to do it online, they’ll be able to pay online. The system is going to be very intuitive.”

Mock said Jaeger has been lax in keeping his office’s voter education materials up to date, and slow in providing training aid to county auditors.

“I think it’s something that’s going to require a lot of changes from multiple facets, not only in passing along information to the counties, but in making it available online,” he said.

Jaeger, the state’s top elections administrator, said he has worked to make voting more accessible and called his working relationship with county auditors “excellent.”

On his office’s website, Jaeger said, “you can go in right now and put in your house number and your ZIP code and you can find your ballot. You can find voting locations, polling locations.”

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