BISMARCK (AP) - Verifying more than 130,000 signatures on five proposed ballot measures is difficult when some names are illegible, says Secretary of State Al Jaeger, who believes signers should also be required to print their names on initiative petitions.
"We're supposed to determine the sufficiency (of a petition) before it goes on the ballot," Jaeger said. "When we can't read a signature ... that is harder to do."
Initiative petitions are used to bypass the North Dakota Legislature and put proposals for state laws and constitutional amendments directly to a statewide vote.
To qualify, an initiated law needs the signatures of almost 13,500 North Dakota voters. A constitutional amendment needs about 27,000 names.
Workers in Jaeger's office are reviewing five proposed measures for possible inclusion on the November ballot, including a ban on smoking in public workplaces, felony penalties for cruelty to dogs, cats and horses, and legalization of marijuana as a pain reliever.
The petitions have more than 134,000 signatures, Jaeger said Thursday. "It's a lot to go through," he said.
Petition signers are required to list their addresses as well as their names. The information is used to send postcards to a random sampling of petition signers to ask them if their signatures were genuine.
However, many of the signatures are illegible or difficult to read, which slows the review process and makes it more difficult to draw a random sample of names for verification, Jaeger said.
"If we are not able to determine who the person is, that brings into question whether in fact we've made a sampling that we can go by," Jaeger said. "That is a concern of mine."
The secretary of state said he is likely to ask the Legislature next year to require petition signers to also print their names legibly.
Lawmakers will have to decide whether the requirement agrees with the North Dakota Constitution's language that bars them from approving laws that "hamper, restrict or impair" citizens' rights to initiate ballot measures, the secretary of state said.
"If you say that people have to print their names, it would take some extra time," he said.
Activists involved in initiative campaigns said it is common for petition circulators to check on whether a signature is legible.
"We told all of our volunteers, if you can't read (a signature), please have them print it, or have them print it in the first place," said Chelsey Matter, a West Fargo respiratory therapist who is chairwoman of an initiative campaign to ban smoking in North Dakota public workplaces.
"I'm willing to bet that a lot of groups who were out collecting signatures were instructing their volunteers to do the same thing," Matter said Thursday. "We want every signature to count."