District 8’s legislative race was first thrust into the statewide spotlight during the June primary season. That was when Governor Doug Burgum decided to throw his own personal fortune at defeating long-time State Representative Jeff Delzer. Delzer is a farmer/rancher whose been one of the more fiscally conservative voices in the House for over 25 years. He chairs the Appropriations Committee and is viewed by many as one of the more powerful individuals in the legislature.
When the dust settled on the June Primary, Burgum’s efforts through his Dakota Leadership PAC were successful. Delzer lost the party’s nomination to political newcomers Dave Nehring and David Andahl.
Unfortunately, Andahl contracted COVID-19 and died about a month ago— after it was too late to remove his name from the November ballot. At the request of Secretary of State Al Jaeger, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem issued an opinion regarding the situation. Among other things, Stenehjem expressed the following:
- That Andahl’s votes should be counted in the General Election.
- If he wins (which he did), the “vacancy” created by his death should be filled as provided by law— either by appointment of the “district committee” (i.e. District 8 Republicans Executive Committee) or via special election.
The problem with Stenehjem’s opinion is that he completely ignored Article IV, Section 5 of the North Dakota State Constitution. It reads:
“Each individual elected or appointed to the legislative assembly must be, on the day of the election or appointment, 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. An individual may not serve in the legislative assembly unless the individual lives in the district from which selected.”
How can David Andahl be “a qualified elector” if he’s dead? In short, he can’t. It’s a fact not lost to Governor Burgum. He actually cited it yesterday when he announced his intentions to make the appointment himself. That’s right— Burgum thinks he should get to play kingmaker in District 8. Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem has already weighed in and said Burgum lacks the authority to do this.
As we might expect, Democrats have also jumped in and expressed their view regarding the situation. For them, it boils down to three things:
- They agree with Burgum that Andahl wasn’t a qualified elector.
- They agree that Burgum lacks the authority to make an appointment.
- They feel Democratic candidate Kathrin Volochenko should fill the seat since she had the second-highest number of votes among candidates who were “qualified electors”.
To be honest, from a legal standpoint, the Democrats probably have the best argument. But I’m guessing that’s not too comforting to a district that cast their ballots for a deceased Republican by 4,005 votes over the Democrat candidate.
This is — admittedly — a messy situation. But should Doug Burgum get to play kingmaker and decide who fills the seat? That’s debatable. On the one hand, the North Dakota Century Code seems to prohibit this. It’s found in Section 44-02-03:
“Any vacancy in a state or district office, except in the office of a member of the legislative assembly, must be filled by appointment by the governor.” (Emphasis Added)
On the other hand, we have Governor Burgum. He doesn’t see things quite the same. He’s pointed to Article V, Section 8 of the State Constitution, which reads:
“The governor may fill a vacancy in any office by appointment if no other method is provided by this constitution or by law.”
The Judicial Branch of government is likely going to end up settling this one.
Outside of the mess though, what we see is a very troubling trend in the way Burgum conducts business from his seat as governor. It seems he thinks of himself as more of a king instead. The way he wields the influence of his office and money are evidence of this.
For example, think of how Burgum conducted himself through the June Primary and General Election. He’s spent millions — through his Dakota Leadership PAC — to get his people elected. And in the case of Thomas Beadle (State Treasurer-Elect) and Kirsten Baesler (DPI Superintendent), that potentially means political influence over the very people the governor sits on important boards with. Doesn’t anyone else see a problem with this?
Whatever the outcome, the State Legislature needs to address current inadequacies in the law regarding situations like these. And when they do it, they need to make sure that the governor can never try playing kingmaker again.
(Editorial Note: District 8 Republicans could have ran a write-in candidate after Andahl’s death. They had until 4pm last Friday to file the paperwork to have write-in votes counted. That means they had a month to run a write-in campaign, but chose not to.)
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