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Dale Wetzel, Associated Press, Published December 23 2010

Larger North Dakota population makes initiatives tougher

BISMARCK – North Dakota’s population increase during the past decade will require advocates of ballot initiatives to gather more petition signatures to get a statewide vote for their favored measures.

Secretary of State Al Jaeger said he wasn’t sure whether the tougher requirements will apply to eight ballot measures that are now being circulated, on topics such as term limits for public officials, abortion regulation and the sale of bottle rockets. He said Wednesday he would ask for legal advice from the attorney general’s office.

“This is something that needs to be clarified,” Jaeger said.

The state constitution gives North Dakota residents the right to put proposed state laws and constitutional amendments directly on the ballot if supporters collect a minimum number of petition signatures. Voters may also use a similar process to repeal laws the Legislature has approved.

North Dakota’s Constitution says that to qualify for the ballot, a referendum petition or a state law initiative needs petition signatures equaling at least 2 percent of the number of state residents counted in the last federal census. For an initiated constitutional amendment, the threshold is 4 percent.

The U.S. Census Bureau reported this week that North Dakota had 672,591 residents on April 1, 2010, a 4.7 percent increase from the 642,200 people counted in the 2000 census.

During the past decade, a referendum or initiated state law needed petition signatures from at least 12,844 eligible North Dakota voters to qualify for the statewide ballot. An initiated constitutional amendment needed at least 25,688 names.

The new federal census data will increase both of those thresholds. An initiated state law, or a law approved by the Legislature that is the target of a repeal campaign, will need at least 13,452 signatures to get on the ballot. An initiated constitutional amendment will need a minimum of 26,904 signatures.

Tom Freier, director of the North Dakota Family Alliance, a conservative Christian group based in Fargo, said he believed an initiative petition that was approved before the new census results were published should not have to meet the higher signature minimum level.

Freier is chairman of a campaign to put an amendment into the state constitution that he says would strengthen religious freedom.

The amendment says that to approve restrictions on religious behavior, lawmakers would need a compelling interest for the change, and show the regulations would affect religious practice in the least restrictive manner possible.

The amendment’s initiative petition now has about 24,000 signatures, Freier said Wednesday. Supporters have until May 2 to submit the minimum number, whether it is 25,688 names or 26,904.

When Jaeger approved the petition for circulation last April 30, it was accompanied by paperwork saying that the measure needed at least 25,688 signatures to get on the ballot, Freier said. He compared the notice to a contract.

“I would expect the (number of required signatures) to be the one at the time the petition was approved. I would think that would be standard operating procedure,” Freier said. “The question is a good one, and obviously it will need to be resolved.”

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