Just Trust Us

Earlier this year, the Center for Public Integrity gave the state of North Dakota an “F” grade on its Corruption Risk Report Card, which rated all 50 states on the risk for election and government corruption. Most of us viewed that report with a skeptical eye, but then when things happen to reinforce the notion, we have to wonder. Here’s an example.

Earlier this week, I got a phone call from a relative of mine—we’ll call him Tom—who is in the military service. He has maintained his North Dakota residency and votes here. He had requested his absentee ballot from the Morton County Auditor. When it arrived at his base in Virginia, it had the word “SAMPLE” stamped across it. He wondered about that, so he called the Morton County Auditor’s office to find out what was up with that.

He was told not to worry, just fill it out and mail it in. Turns out when the Morton County Auditor’s office received his application, the regular ballot wasn’t printed yet, so they sent him a “sample” ballot. When Tom called to question that, he was told to fill it out, mail it in, and when it arrived, they would take it out of the envelope, and transfer his votes to a real ballot. Huh? Seriously?

Tom was a little suspicious about the whole procedure, especially the part about someone else having access to his ballot and casting his votes for him on a new ballot. Well, knowing that I just love this kind of puzzle, he called me and asked me to check for him. So I did. Here’s what I learned.

First I went to the Morton County Auditor’s office. The nice lady there told me that federal law requires auditors to send out absentee ballots to servicemen and women who request them at least 45 days before the election. Problem is, in North Dakota the ballots aren’t ready until 40 days before the election. So there’s a 5-day gap there that creates a problem. In order to comply with federal law, they just sent out the sample ballot and promised to transfer the votes from that to a real ballot when it arrived.

I was still a little skeptical, so I decided to stop by the Burleigh County Auditor’s office on the way home and see if I got the same story. I did, with just a few details different. Both said they had been directed to do it that way by . . . drum roll . . . you guessed it . . . the state’s top election official, Secretary of State Al Jaeger.  Why was I not surprised by that?

Well, this just didn’t sound right to me, so I decided to go to Al’s office and see what was going on with this. Went there. Asked to see an election official. The friendly secretary at the front said that the election officials were in another building, but if I sat down by a phone over in the corner, she’d get hold of them and have them call me to answer my questions. I offered to go to their building, but she said no, this is the best way to get my questions answered. So I waited. 20 minutes. And then the secretary came over and said she was sorry, she’d not been able to reach anyone in the “other building” but she would take my name and phone number and have them call me. I said fine, even though I thought it was a strange way to do business, and I’d be happy to just go to their office (there’s a lot of strange business in the Secretary of State’s office these days). No, she said, they’re in the basement of an office building in north Bismarck, and don’t have any place to meet with the public there, so they’d have to call me.

Hmmm. No room for them in the Secretary of State’s office at the Capitol. I repeat, there is no room for the officials who manage and monitor our elections in the North Dakota State Capitol Building. They work in a basement of an office building a couple miles away. In fact, if you go to the Secretary of State’s website, you’ll find this note: * Due to space limitations in the Capitol, the Secretary of State’s election staff is currently located two miles from the Capitol campus. Therefore, please contact the Elections Unit in advance to schedule an in-person meeting with the election staff. I guess nothing surprises me about Al Jaeger’s office any more.

I got a phone call from Leann Oliver, the state’s top elections officer, later in the day. I’ve done business with Leann many times in the past, and she’s generally a straight shooter. She confirmed that indeed, the ladies at the auditor’s offices had been following the Secretary of State’s instructions regarding military ballots. I asked more questions about the federal law being out of synch with state law. She referred me to a deputy, whose name escapes me right now—Jim Somebody—who told me that every state with a candidate filing deadline like ours has the same problem. Aha! There’s the operative phrase: candidate filing deadline.

What Jim and Leann told me is that in North Dakota there is a filing deadline to get on the ballot 60 days before the election. The Secretary of State and the 53 county auditors then have 20 days to prepare the ballot and have it printed, because the state law requires the ballots to be ready for regular absentee voters 40 days before the election—as opposed to 45 days for service men and women, as required by the federal law.

The Secretary of State’s staff members told me there is no way they can get the ballots ready in just the 15 days between the 60-day filing deadline and the 45-day federal deadline for service members. But because section 16.1-07-04 of the North Dakota Century Code requires that absentee voters’ ballots be available 40 days before the election, apparently they do get them ready in the next five days, to meet the requirement for regular absentee voters. They can do it in 20 days, but not in 15.

Well, the solution seems obvious. If the filing deadline was moved back just five days—65 days before the election instead of 60 days—service members would be able to get a real ballot and not have to hope that someone back in North Dakota would copy their votes correctly from a sample ballot to a real ballot. That seems like a reasonable thing to do. I bounced the idea off Senator Rich Wardner, the North Dakota Senate Majority Leader, today, and he thought so too. Thought perhaps Al Jaeger should have a bill drafted for the 2013 Legislature. Me too. Although the federal law was passed in 2009, so it might have been reasonable to expect Al Jaeger to put it to the 2011 Legislature, to avoid this problem.

Meanwhile, because there is still plenty of time before this election, and Tom is currently stationed here in the U.S., Jim, the deputy in Al Jaeger’s office, offered to call the Morton County Auditor and authorize her to send Tom a new, regular ballot. I asked Tom on the phone today if he would rather have a new ballot than have someone here copy his sample ballot, and he thought he’d prefer a new ballot. Duh.

Do we have corrupt election officials in North Dakota? Probably not, but with patchwork procedures like this, the potential surely exists. Should Tom be really worried about how his ballot would be handled? Probably not, but he’s a couple thousand miles away, defending our country, and he shouldn’t have to be subjected to such a rinky-dink solution to a problem which could have been corrected before the 2012 election. I hope it will be fixed before the 2014 election. I’ll be watching. So should the families of every other North Dakota service member.

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