By August Johannsen
North Dakota is perhaps best known for the Midwestern “charm” portrayed in the 1996 film, Fargo. However, even that movie took place almost entirely in Minnesota. In other words, North Dakota is about as nondescript a State as States come. But then North Dakota suddenly hit the national headlines when technological advances allowed for the extraction of oil from the state’s Bakken Shale Formation. This oil boom has drastically increased the state’s financial well-being, its oil output, and its population. By now, you may be asking, “What does this have to do with state election law?” The answer is, “A lot.”
North Dakota remains the only state in the country that does not register its voters. An interesting side note: North Dakota was one of the first states that adopted a voter registration scheme, but then abolished it in 1951. The state prides itself on the ease of its electoral process – “Voting in North Dakota is as easy as pie!” This unique system of voting is based on the state’s rural character and small precincts, where every community is (or at least was) tight knit and election boards know the voters who come to the polls to vote on Election Day and can easily detect those who should not be voting in the precinct. To cast a ballot, a voter need only present identification (no photo required), which is a relatively recent addition to the ballot-casting process and only very recently made a strict requirement (North Dakota issued documents only).
North Dakotans love their relaxed polling laws. They love that they don’t have to worry about the hassle of registering and can therefore wait right until the last minute to decide how they want to vote. This makes the election process stress-free and straight-forward. As long as the voter has the proper identification – a North Dakota driver’s license, non-driver’s identification card, tribal government identification card, North Dakota college or university student identification certificate, or a North Dakota long-term care identification certificate – that person can vote without worrying at all about the pre-election red tape of registering and deciding which political party to identify with, or any other associated tasks of administratively preparing to vote. As with any law, some people may be negatively affected, but overall, North Dakotans support their election procedure.
North Dakota’s Bakken Shale Formation oil boom threatens to unbalance this small community-focused system of electing governmental representatives. In the 2000 Presidential election each precinct in North Dakota handled, on average, 420 voters. In the 2012 Presidential election, each precinct in North Dakota handled, on average, 765 voters. This average will almost certainly rise even higher in the 2016 Presidential election, as oil field workers continue to flood into the state. Thus, even just administratively, the massive influx of residents threatens to disrupt the North Dakota political machine.
The influx of oil workers is also changing the political leanings of the state. Though still a “red” state, North Dakota is beginning to change. In fact, according to some, the state is in fact now staunchly “purple,” due in part to the oil boom drawing in people from all over the country. Non-native North Dakotans, who did not grow up the unique rural community of North Dakota, are bringing their political views and traditions into the state. Thus, administratively and politically, the influx of residents threatens to disrupt the North Dakota political machine.
Finally, due to the low-key ballot casting process, campaigns have traditionally been correspondingly low-key and low budget. Before the oil boom, state office campaigns were won with less than a few thousand dollars. But now, after the boom, campaign contributions are well over $17 million, which is more than double what they were just four years ago. The oil and gas industry appears to be buying its way to a friendlier political climate for itself. However, this huge cash influx into the election system is making the state a less friendly place to vote. Because of oil industry lobbying money, negative campaign ads are more prevalent and the traditionally amicable and moderate politics of North Dakota have become more polarized.
What can be done to fix this problem of a local community based electoral system getting overrun by industrial interests and massive immigration? The answer cannot be limiting the money. The Supreme Court has effectively driven the last nail into the coffin of campaign finance limits with McCutcheon, Citizens United, and American Tradition Partnership v. Bullock, the case from Montana that challenged Citizens United, but was summarily overruled by the United States Supreme Court. Similarly, there is no way to simply end the oil boom and return to the traditional small communities that once defined the state. The oil will eventually run out, but nobody knows when; the oil industry is deeply entrenched for the long haul in North Dakota. All that remains would be to alter the state’s election laws, for example by implementing statewide (North Dakota currently allows cities to register voters for city elections) registration or residency requirements like every other state. This could be as simple as requiring that only those who will have lived in North Dakota for at least 30 days before the next election, for example, be allowed to register or vote. Or it could be as difficult as proving, with documentation, one’s United States citizenship, instead of just attesting to the fact under penalty of perjury. Either way, changing North Dakota’s election scheme is an unwise course of action.
Considering changing North Dakota’s election laws to mitigate the impact of the oil boom on the elections begs the following two questions: Is there a problem to fix? And what, exactly, would be done to address the problem, if it exists? An argument exists that there is no problem to fix. Where there is money to be made, there will be lobbyists and campaign contributions. Since the Supreme Court has said that outside and corporate money in elections is not a problem, there is no problem. Furthermore, it stands to reason that since the oil industry is far and away the greatest source of sustained job growth, North Dakotans, or at least the new oil workers, would support candidates and policies that support the oil industries work in the state.
This is a slightly different issue than national politicians being beholden to a certain industry and making decisions that affect all Americans, regardless of their proximity to that industry. Here, there are really only two (sometimes three) competing interests: oil versus ranching (and sometimes environmentalists, such as when wildlife refuges threaten to limit grazing lands). The oil industry in North Dakota has led the state to one of the best economic situations in the country: very low unemployment and huge budget surpluses. This is, obviously, good for the state. Environmentalists, including cattle ranchers for example, argue that the oil boom is hurting North Dakota’s beautiful prairies and grazing land. North Dakotan environmental interests sustained a blow in the most recent election with the resounding loss on Measure 5, a ballot measure that would haven redirected a significant amount of oil tax revenues to conservation efforts. But with nearly 80% of the electorate voting against that state constitutional amendment, there appears to be more than simply lobbying going on here – it looks like it was a truly unpopular policy change. But the measure did lead North Dakota’s Governor and other state representatives to propose an alternative funding of over $100 million for the environment and improving state parks.
In sum, it looks like the political process is working just fine. Simply because the oil industry is unpopular in some circles, does not mean that the state has been bought and paid for by the industry. It appears that North Dakotan voters have rationally determined that helping the oil industry is a smart policy choice for North Dakotans and have done so. There is no problem to be fixed. Even if there was, it appears at least for now that the state’s electorate is too attached to its no-voter-registration scheme to change it. The risk of fraud may decrease with a statewide registration scheme, but North Dakota has determined that its voters’ interests are better served with no registration, but allowing urban areas to implement their own registration schemes for local, urban elections.
As long as there is no problem, no solution need be sought. North Dakota should keep on its current course. Perhaps things will change in the future, but for now, the system seems to be working. When Democracy works it should not be interfered with.