Some voting bills still on the agenda for second half of N.D. legislative session

National fight over ‘fraud’ vs. ‘suppression’ less pronounced here

By Dylan ShermanNDNAEF

BISMARCK – Sen. Shawn Vedaa, R-Velva, said there are more voting and election related bills before the North Dakota Legislature this session than in his three previous sessions, and the chairman of the Senate Government and Veterans Affairs Committee said he believes it is due to the political climate from the previous year.

“I think this is the highest that I recall,” he said. “I think the intentions are to improve (the laws), but many times (sponsors) don’t understand (the issues) themselves.”

Vedaa said North Dakota elections have always been safe and most of the bills being brought up are a reaction to the 2020 election.

This is reflected on the national level as well, as the Brennan Center, a nonpartisan law and policy institute, reported last month that 250 bills proposed in 43 states this year related to elections and voting.

“These bills primarily seek to limit mail voting and impose stricter voter ID requirements,” according to the institute.

Of the numerous election bills proposed in North Dakota, many of the more restrictive and controversial measures already have failed.

House bills 1289 and 1312, which would have increased the residency requirement to be a qualified elector and restricted access to absentee voting respectively, both failed to get through the House.

Kylie Oversen, chairwoman of the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party, said the failed bills were not beneficial to North Dakotans.

“Both of the bills were very bad legislation, in my perspective,” she said. “We generally think we should be expanding access to voting, not restricting it.”

Although the pandemic brought an increased use of absentee ballots, Oversen said absentee voting and voting by mail are not new in North Dakota.

“Some of our counties are vote-by-mail only,” she said. “In rural counties in particular, it is a huge benefit and there is no reason to restrict that access.”

One bill still alive would make it easier for college students to vote in North Dakota. It was introduced last month by Rep. Claire Cory, R-Grand Forks, whose District 42 includes the UND campus.

“House Bill 1447 would allow university students to vote in elections with their student ID card,” she said. “It would guarantee students easier access to a ballot.”

Cory said it can be hard to obtain documents, such as a driver’s license, when living in student housing.

“If we allow people who live in Arizona for seven months out of the year to vote, I don’t see why we shouldn’t let students vote who are living in the state for nine months out of the year,” she said.

The bill was amended in committee to have the schools give students a document to prove residency and to apply only to North Dakota residents and not all college students.

During the House floor vote in late February, questions were raised about whether this bill would allow some people to vote twice. Rep. Ben Koppelman, R-West Fargo, who reported the bill from committee, assured the chamber that would be difficult to do.

“This is just the students’ version of a utility bill since they can’t feasibly get a utility bill at a dorm,” he said.

With a vote of 87-7, HB 1447 passed through the House chamber.

Although 1447 has not yet had its Senate committee hearing, Vedaa said he agrees with the idea of making it easier for North Dakota students to vote.

Addressing absentee ballots has been another issue lawmakers have taken up this session, with SB 2142 dealing with processing absentee ballots. Sen. Kristin Roers, R-Fargo, introduced the bill, which would allow county auditors and election workers to process absentee ballots up to three business days prior to election day.

“As you read this bill please note that votes may not be tallied prior to election day,” she said. “The only purpose of this change is to allow the counties to use the days leading up to the election to be deliberate and careful when processing absentee ballots.”

Roers said this bill will help ease pressure of counting and verifying votes on election day when a large number of absentee ballots are received.

“That is the intent, to do it right the first time rather than rushing through it,” she said.

Burleigh County Election Manager Erika White testified in favor of the bill during its first hearing in January. “Counties are seeing an increase in non-traditional voting methods, such as early voting and absentee voting,” she said. “Between the 2014 and 2016 general election we saw a 12% increase in absentee ballots, and between the 2016 and 2018 we saw a 22% increase.”

White said she knew 2020 was an unprecedented year, but absentee voting in Burleigh County rose by 144%.

“We expect our absentee ballot quantities to continue to increase,” she said. “Processing absentee ballots is quite the undertaking.”

SB 2142 is scheduled to have its hearing at 9 a.m. on March 19.

Changing the number of days for early voting is another bill, HB 1373, still alive in the Senate. Introduced by Rep. Jim Kasper, R-Fargo, the bill would reduce early voting from 15 days to nine business days prior to an election.

“This is more an opportunity to give people an ability to make their final decision on how they wish to cast their ballot closer to that date,” he said.

Kasper added that it was also to get back to the tradition of voting on election day.

When asked by a member of the House Government and Veterans Affairs Committee in January if he thought this bill would make it harder for citizens to vote, Kasper said he didn’t believe so.

“The intent of this is not to disenfranchise or make it more difficult for people to vote, it is just squeezing the time down a little bit,” he said.

The bill passed resoundingly in the House in February, by a vote of 78-13, with the votes against coming from the House Democrats.

HB 1373 has a hearing scheduled for 9:30 a.m. on March 19 in the Senate, and Vedaa said he was interested in the arguments for changing the number of days. “I didn’t have a problem with 15,” he said, but he will “listen to see why” the change was proposed. 

The Senate overwhelmingly rejected HB 1238 on March 10, after the bill had narrowly passed in the House last month. That bill, also introduced by Kasper, had to do with polling places on election day. Sen. Scott Meyer, R-Grand Forks, told the Senate, according to the secretary of state’s office and county auditors, redistricting later this year would make the bill’s provisions unnecessary.