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Dave Olson, Published November 02 2012

A recount could put spotlight on North Dakota’s unique voting rules

BISMARCK – A tight U.S. Senate race in North Dakota between Rick Berg and Heidi Heitkamp has some people talking about a possible recount.

There is also talk a recount would create nightmares based on North Dakota’s election rules and the fact it is the only state without voter registration.

North Dakota Secretary of State Al Jaeger finds this kind of talk irritating.

“We’ve done recounts in the past. We know how to do them. If we have a recount, we are prepared,” said Jaeger, who expects strong scrutiny from political parties and their attorneys if a recount is necessary.

And he knows what he will tell them: Look, here’s the law, here’s what we’re going to do and this is the plan we’re going to follow.

Jaeger acknowledged a “theoretical” weakness in the way North Dakota handles voting, but he said it has never been a problem in the way voting actually takes place.

At issue is what happens when someone shows up to vote.

If people can produce identification that shows they are 18 and a resident of the precinct, they are given a ballot and allowed to vote.

If they don’t have adequate documentation, they can still vote if an election official can vouch for them, or if the voter signs an affidavit attesting to their eligibility.

Officials double-check the validity of affidavits by sending postcards to the voter’s claimed address.

If they hear from someone at that address saying they didn’t vote, officials know there was a problem. Voters could face a Class A misdemeanor charge if they signed an affidavit knowing the information on it wasn’t true.

By that stage of the game, however, there is no way under North Dakota law to reject the ballot because they’re mixed in with the rest of the ballots.

While Jaeger acknowledged that poses a potential problem, he said in decades of voting in North Dakota it has not been an issue.

Jaeger said recent recounts in North Dakota include a legislative race in June.

As far as statewide recounts go, the last one was in November 1996. There was a recount of the agriculture commissioner race between Roger Johnson and Dina Butcher.

Jaeger said current guidelines for a recount, which would be followed by all of the counties in the state, can be found on the secretary of state’s website.

The guidelines state that a recount is triggered automatically when an election is determined by a margin of less than one-half of 1 percent.

A candidate can demand a recount if the margin of victory in a race is less than 2 percent.

In 2010, the last state general election, 4,437 people voted using an affidavit, which amounted to 1.84 percent of the total ballots cast, said Jaeger, who added that many of those voters were likely college students.

The U.S. Senate race between Republican Berg and Democrat Heitkamp is being watched closely across the nation, with both sides spending heavily on political ads and drawing big-name backers such as former presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and former Democratic President Bill Clinton.

While North Dakota has not had voter registration since it was abolished in the early 1950s, attempts were made in recent legislative sessions to establish a provisional ballot rule.

Under the proposal, someone could fill out a ballot using an affidavit, but the ballot would be placed in an envelope until the voter could return with documentation establishing their eligibility.

That could happen on Election Day, or the voter could provide the county auditor’s office with the necessary documentation anytime before votes are canvased.

State Rep. Kim Koppelman, R-West Fargo, a proponent of the proposal, said the idea is to make voting as easy as possible, while maintaining the integrity of the election process.

“Nothing would change in the process we have, except that your ballot would not be counted until it’s clear you’re eligible to vote,” Koppelman said.

He said that while he feels the provisional ballot is an idea whose time has come and would likely pass if reintroduced, he’s not locked into one concept.

“I’m willing to look at all kinds of ideas that would help the process,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555

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