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TJ Jerke, Forum News Service, Published June 24 2013

Group misses abortion petition deadline; backer blames secretary of state

BISMARCK – A backer of the failed petition drive seeking to refer three anti-abortion laws to the 2014 ballot claims Secretary of State Al Jaeger violated the state constitution by taking too long to approve the petitions for circulation.

But the head of the sponsoring committee that requested the petitions blamed the group’s failure largely on opposition from the state’s only abortion clinic.

The sponsoring committee, which requested the petitions in April, fell short of reaching 13,452 signatures for each petition by its Monday deadline, which, as prescribed by law, was 90 days after the laws were filed with the secretary of state.

Roland Reimers, secretary of North Dakota Referral Supporters, a committee created to help circulate the petitions for the sponsoring committee, said Jaeger denied the committee’s right to begin circulating petitions by “nitpicking” the petitions for such things as grammar, fonts and margin spacing.

“He not only violated his own guidelines, but the state constitution,” Reimers said. “Because he delayed the thing, it basically made it almost impossible to get all the signatures required in the limited time we had available.”

The sponsoring committee, headed by Gary Hangsleben, of Grand Forks, asked for the petition titles April 2, giving Jaeger and Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem five to seven business days to approve the titles. Jaeger said they were approved and sent back April 11 with detailed information on how to format the rest of the petition, with the petition officially ready for circulation April 19.

Jaeger said someone only needs to look to state law to show his office’s authority over the petitions.

Reimers speculated that Jaeger, a Republican, may have taken so long because the Republican Party championed the laws during the legislative session.

Jaeger rebuffed Reimers’ allegations Monday, arguing that his office stayed within the deadlines it had to meet.

“Our standards are the same, they have been consistently the same for the entire 20 years I’ve been in office,” Jaeger said. “It doesn’t make a difference to me what the topic is, my first obligation is to the oath of office, which is to uphold the constitution of the state of North Dakota.”

Jaeger said he is comfortable with how his office handled the petition requests, saying it was the committee that took so much time.

On Monday, Jaeger denied Hangsleben’s request that the committee’s filing deadline be extended by 90 days. Hangsleben said he is now drafting a letter to the state Supreme Court asking for a ruling on whether he should be granted an extension.

Hangsleben said in an interview that the group fell short of obtaining the required signatures largely due to an effort by the state’s only abortion clinic to keep the group from referring the laws to the 2014 ballot.

The Red River Women’s Clinic in Fargo has already challenged one of the laws, and plans to sue the state over the other two in the coming month.

“Everything has gone really smoothly except I can only guess the clinic has intimidated people across the state not to support the referral,” Hangsleben said. “We had a lot of supporters, but I can only guess she sent out emails and made calls not to support the referral.”

Hangsleben was referring to the clinic’s director, Tammi Kromenaker, who said Monday that she only posted a note not to support the referrals on the clinic’s Facebook page right after the request was made for the petitions.

“Constitutional rights should not be put to a popular vote,” she said Monday. “I understand people’s passion for what happened in the Legislature, but we don’t believe the referral process was the way to go in this situation.”