The North Dakota Supreme Court might get one more chance to knock a candidate off the November General Election ballot. But don’t bet on them doing it. Because the candidate in question is a Republican this time, and the North Dakota Supreme Court likes Republicans.
Let me introduce you to the strange case of North Dakota State Representative Terry B. Jones, R-New Town, who represents District 4 in the North Dakota Legislature. District 4 is a sprawling rural Legislative district that include parts of six counties and the Fort Berthod Indian Reservation.
A little background.
District 4 was traditionally represented by Democrats prior to 2012. Democratic-leaning Fort Berthold residents made up a good chunk of the voting base in the district, and they were joined by a strong Farmers Union-based rural population in Mountrail and McLean Counties. But Republicans gerrymandered the district lines after the 2010 census, moving a Democratic-NPL leaning area of McLean County out of the district and bringing in a Republican-leaning part of Ward County.
In doing that, they moved Rep. Glen Froseth, a Kenmare Republican and popular newspaper editor, into the district. Froseth had been representing District 6, part of Ward County, in the House. Apparently he was willing to take his chances in a new district and agreed to the gerrymandering.
In the ensuing 2012 election, Froseth ran a single-shot Republican campaign and knocked off incumbent Tom Conklin, a Democrat. Conklin’s running mate, Kenton Onstad, survived because there was only one Republican on the ballot.
Onstad had first been elected in 2000, and had risen quickly to leadership, serving as his party’s Floor Leader in the House.
Froseth retired after the 2015 session. In 2016, Republicans ran two candidates this time, and to everyone’s surprise, partly because of the earlier gerrymandering, partly because of the Trump landslide in North Dakota and partly because of a low turnout on the Reservation, Onstad lost his seat by a couple hundred votes.
Enter Terry B. Jones.
Jones had come to North Dakota to work in the Oil Patch during the Bakken Boom, renting an apartment in New Town. He left his family behind in a little town of 50 people called Otto, Wyoming, an hour or so east of Yellowstone National Park.
Jones was a newcomer to politics, and didn’t seem to be that well-known in District 4, and while he claimed to be a resident of New Town, he didn’t spend much time there.
“Claimed” is the operative word in that sentence. To this day he lives with his wife and family in a rambling six-bedroom, 4,500 square foot house in the little town in Wyoming, which also apparently serves as headquarters for his business there, Jones Brothers Enterprises, LLC, from what I can tell a trucking and construction company.
He apparently spends just enough time in New Town, North Dakota, to claim that he lives there and is eligible to represent District 4 in the Legislature.
Except now some folks are claiming that he ISN’T eligible to be in the Legislature.
Onstad, who has decided not to run for the Legislature again but serves as the District Democratic-NPL Chairman, sent a letter this week, on behalf of the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party, to North Dakota Secretary of State Al Jaeger (they know each other well from their years on the first floor of the North Dakota Capitol), writing:
“Dear Secretary of State Jaeger,
“I am writing to request your assistance in removal of Terry B. Jones from the ballot due to his not meeting the residency requirements set forth in the North Dakota constitution and state law.
“Mr. Jones currently represents District 4 in the state legislature, claiming a residence in New Town, ND. However, it has come to my attention that Mr. Jones does not, in fact, reside in North Dakota. Mr. Jones maintains a residence in and spends the majority of his time in the state of Wyoming.”
Along with the letter, Onstad sent several documents, among them the document filed with the Wyoming Secretary of State in January 2020 for a company called Jones Brothers Enterprises, LLC, located at 203 1st St. South in Otto, Wyoming. The company’s Registered Agent is listed as Terry B. Jones, same address. The document also lists Kelly Jones, Rep. Jones’s wife, as manager of the company. The document shows the company has registered with the Wyoming Secretary of State every year since 2005. You can see all the information here.
A second document is the company’s Annual Report, also filed with the Secretary of State, also listing Terry B. Jones as the Registered Agent.
A third document from the Secretary of State’s office is titled “How to Find (or Become) a Registered Agent.” Here’s what it says on that document:
Who can be a registered agent?
• The registered agent may be an individual resident in Wyoming or a business entity (foreign or domestic) authorized to transact business in Wyoming. The registered agent must have a physical address in Wyoming.
• An individual may serve as the registered agent for a business entity if they: are at least 18 years of age, reside in Wyoming, and have a physical Wyoming address. (emphasis added)
Terry B. Jones is the Registered Agent for Jones Brothers Enterprises LLC, and is required to “reside in Wyoming.”
That’s what Kenton Onstad thought too. So he wrote this to Jaeger:
“As you know, the Constitution of the State of North Dakota requires that candidates for the state legislature must be “on the day of the election . . . a qualified elector in the district from which the member was selected and must have been a resident of the state for one year immediately prior to that election.” Further, the Constitution requires that an “individual may not serve in the legislative assembly unless the individual lives in the district from which selected.”
So, Onstad continued:
“This leads me to believe that not only should Mr. Jones be removed from the ballot for the November election, he should also be removed from his current seat in the state legislature. In line with the recent Supreme Court decision in Berg v. Jaeger, if an individual is not eligible to hold an office, it would be erroneous to place that individual’s name on the ballot. Pursuant to N.D.C.C. § 16.1-08-01, I therefore request your prompt attention to this matter to investigate the error that would occur if Mr. Jones’ name were placed on the November ballot.”
Onstad is referring, of course, to the case of Travisia Martin, the Democratic-NPL-endorsed candidate for North Dakota Insurance Commissioner, whose name was removed by Jaeger from the November ballot because she was deemed not a resident of North Dakota for at least five years, as required by the North Dakota Constitution, having voted in Nevada in 2016. A case brought to the North Dakota Supreme Court by North Dakota Republican Party Chairman Rick Berg.
So, Onstad’s logic tells him, if Jones meets the requirement to be a Registered Agent of a Wyoming business—if he’s a resident of Wyoming—he’s not eligible to hold office in North Dakota.
Jones’s mailing address, listed on his official North Dakota Legislative web page, is Box 1964, New Town, ND 58763-1964. I don’t know how often he checks his mailbox. But don’t you think maybe a State Legislator ought to have a physical address at home in his district, not just a P.O. Box? His phone number, listed on the state website is 307-272-1915. A Wyoming area code. No North Dakota phone number listed.
But no surprise to anyone, Jaeger wasn’t buying it. It didn’t take him long to respond. He wrote back:
“Dear Mr. Onstad,
“I received your letter yesterday, in which you requested my assistance in removing the name of Terry B. Jones from the General Election ballot as a candidate for the North Dakota House of Representatives for Legislative District 4.
“In the letter, you referenced Section 5 of Article IV of the North Dakota Constitution as a basis for your request. However Section 12 of Article IV states that “Each House is the judge of the qualifications of its members.” Therefore I am unable to comply with your request.
“Additionally, last Friday I forwarded to the county auditors my certification of the ballot for the November Election and the preparation of the ballot is well underway.”
And so that’s that.
Jaeger says that Section 5 doesn’t apply. Section 12 does. Jones’ name will stay on the ballot. If he’s elected, the members of the House will have to decide if he is eligible to serve. I bet that will be a really hard decision. Hah!
What’s next? I asked Democratic-NPL Chair Kylie Oversen, a young attorney herself, what the Democrats plan to do, and she said, “We are reviewing, and discussing filing a petition, either with the local district court or the Supreme Court.”
She added, “If anything, Al’s response illuminates how arbitrarily the varying residency requirements are [not] enforced.”
Well, she’s right about that.
That was late Wednesday. I haven’t heard any more. But it will be interesting if she decides to do that. We could find out which Section of the North Dakota Constitution the Supreme Court likes best. Wanna make a bet?
Meanwhile, it sure would have been a lot simpler if the Democrats had done this a few weeks (or months or years) ago, before the ballot was prepared. The decision would affect the ballots in six different counties, and there’s not a lot of time left–the ballots need to be prepared 45 days before the election, which means next week.
Dang it, Democrats, you always seem to be a day late and a dollar short. A wise man once said “Elections are won by paying attention to details.” It’s about time North Dakota Democrats started to do that. Paying attention. And winning elections.