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Omdahl: Measures drew more than partisan races

By Staff | Dec 5, 2014

Not having access to polls to track issues during the recent election campaign, a couple of measures caught me by surprise. The surprises were not in the partisan elections but on the eight ballot measures. The know-it-all didn’t know it all.

For example, I expected Measure 1 (personhood) to pass. It lost by a significant margin. Surprise.

Everyone should have expected Measure 2 (phantom mortgage tax) to pass. It had no opponents. No surprise there.

Rejection of Measure 3 (higher education) was a sure bet. However, Measure 4 (curbing ballot initiatives) was doubtful because public discussion of the issue was limited, making it more of a turkey shoot.

While I was skeptical about the chances of Measure 5 (conservation and parks), I thought it would make a better showing than it did. In fact, it did so poorly that I expect the Legislature to walk away from the campaign promises to do more for conservation and parks.

Measure 6 (parenting) looked to me like it may have a chance and I thought Measure 7 (pharmacy ownership) would certainly pass.

With the promise of saving money, why would people vote against such a measure? Was it a manifestation of hatred of box stores or was it loyalty to the home town pharmacists? You tell me.

I had no expectations on Measure 8 (school opening) although I would not have been surprised by its passage.

As it turned out, the measures were the centerpiece of the election, encouraging voter turnout in North Dakota even though national turnout slid into the 30 percent range.

Even though 15,000 more ballots were cast in 2014 than were cast in 2010 (the last nonpresidential year), turnout in 2014 dropped one percent from 48 percent in 2010 to 47 percent in 2014. Population increased more than turnout.

The importance of the measures can be seen by comparing the votes cast for the partisan offices and those cast for the measures.

The largest partisan vote was on the race for Congress in which 249,000 ballots were cast. But there were three measures that received more votes than the Congressional race.

Around 252,000 votes were cast on the personhood measure; 251,000 on the conservation measure, and 250,000 on the pharmacy proposal. The average vote on the eight measures was 247,000 while the average vote for the partisan offices was 242,000.

While the statewide turnout was 47 percent, counties that fell into the 30s were Benson, Grand Forks, Mountrail, Rolette, Sioux, Ward and Williams.

The Native-American population could explain several counties but the influx of oil personnel is not the reason for the low turnout in Williams and Ward. A 30-year compilation of turnout covering 1952-1982 found that Grand Forks, Williams and Ward have always had low turnouts.

The high turnout counties – 60 percent and over – were Billings, Grant, Kidder, Logan, McIntosh, Emmons, Sheridan, Slope, Griggs and Wells. In the 1952-1982 compilation, all of these counties were in the top 15.

These figures suggest that turnout in counties is based more on cultural tradition than contemporary issues.

Looking at the North Dakota legislative races, we should have expected Democratic losses in a nonpresidential year with a Democratic president. That didn’t happen. In fact, the relative strength of both parties in the 2015 Legislature remains the same as it was in 2013. So why didn’t Democrats lose seats?

President Obama ran so poorly in 2012 that there was nothing left to surge in the off-year. The Democratic legislative delegation had already been reduced to a bare minimum.

Another factor. Democrats left 19 legislative races uncontested while Republicans left only six. It is virtually impossible to beat somebody with nobody.

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