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Lloyd Omdahl, Published November 04 2012

Omdahl: People have an option

Measures are initiated for the ballot when the supporters feel the Legislature will not give their case a fair hearing or the Legislature has already turned a deaf ear to their message.

Deaf ears was the case when the North Dakota natural resource organizations initiated a constitutional amendment that would have designated 5 percent of the oil revenue for a series of outdoor resource programs.

Defending their move to take the issue to the people, proponents felt they needed a constitutional amendment to keep the Legislature from “subverting” the will of the people.

To buttress their case, the consortium of natural resource groups commissioned a public opinion poll in 2010 before going to the 2011 Legislature. The poll reflected strong public support for key programs:

E 67 percent supported dedicated funding for natural resources.

E 85 percent favored allowing landowners to sell to conservation groups.

E 60 percent favored conservation easements.

E 62 percent supported voluntary land preservation agreements.

Conducted by a combination of two polling organizations, the results were based on 400 contacts, a fairly standard sample for state polls. There is no reason to believe that the poll was not a reflection of public opinion.

While the natural resource measure failed to make the Nov. 6 ballot because of flawed signatures, it raised an interesting question about the role of public opinion in the state policymaking process. After all, the 2011 Legislature had the results of the poll and did nothing. Public opinion did not carry the day for the resource groups.

It was frustration with unresponsive legislatures that spawned the initiative and referral processes in almost half of the states in the early 1900s. Legislatures were controlled by interests and groups that did not reflect the general values of the state so the people armed themselves with the right to pass laws in spite of the legislature.

Looking at it from another point of view, the initiative and referendum processes stand as an indictment of representative government. They tell us that legislatures fail to respond to the people often enough so alternative methods are necessary.

Unfortunately, the results of initiatives and referenda do not always reflect good judgment. Issues appear on the ballot for which voters are ill-prepared to decide. Often, this ignorance is exploited by groups that may not be representative of the public but have the means to create or sway public opinion.

But what are citizens to do when the Legislature fails to respond to majority opinion? Or should public opinion be a serious consideration in legislating? In a democracy, one would think so.

There is no political recourse for aggrieved parties because legislative races in North Dakota are not determined on issues. Rather, they are social positions for which candidates are judged by their involvement in the community and not their positions on issues.

On a per capita basis, North Dakota has the second largest legislature in the country. This makes for small districts that exaggerate the importance of personal relationships and community activities.

Because community standing is the controlling criterion, there is no meaningful discussion of issues in most legislative districts.

So the representativeness of legislators can be questioned as often as the ability of voters to make intelligent decisions in the initiative process.

The only option available to the natural resource advocates, or other aggrieved parties, is to go back to the Legislature, and if that fails, to try the ballot route.


Omdahl is a former North Dakota lieutenant governor and a retired University of North Dakota political science teacher. Email ndmatters@q.com