Why Won’t Wayne Stenehjem Issue An Opinion About Libertarian Candidate Ballot Issue?

Al Jaeger

Yesterday I noted that Democrat Secretary of State Candidate (and state Senator) Corey Mock had a point about incumbent Secretary of State Al Jaeger’s handling of the omission of a Libertarian Party candidate from the primary ballot. Jaeger’s decision was to simply put that candidate on the general election ballot, and Mock along with fellow legislator Senator John Warner was requesting a legal opinion on the from Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem.

But now Stenehjem, for some reason, has denied the request.

Secretary of State Al Jaeger’s paperwork mistake shouldn’t keep a Libertarian candidate for the state Public Service Commission off the November ballot, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said Thursday.

Stenehjem declined a request from state Sen. John Warner, D-Ryder, for a formal legal opinion on the issue, saying he had already given Jaeger the advice he needed to resolve the problem.

Warner and Corey Mock, Jaeger’s Democratic opponent for re-election, held a news conference in Minot on Thursday to publicize the opinion request. Mock called Stenehjem’s refusal to issue an opinion disappointing, and said he hoped the Republican attorney general would reconsider.

If Jaeger acted under advice from Stenehjem, what’s the harm in rendering a legal opinion to back up the advice given? Obviously, Mock is making a campaign issue out of this, but rightfully so. Jaeger’s office did make a mistake in leaving a candidate off the statewide ballot. Jaeger also didn’t notify the candidate that he’d been left off the ballot until three weeks later, and only then after the AP reported on the story.

Now, you have to wonder about a candidate who apparently didn’t know whether or not he was even on the ballot, but even so this speaks to what was undoubtedly an innocent mistake in the beginning to a problem compounded by poor decisions by Jaeger.

I think Stenehjem owes the public an opinion to at least establish a basis in the law for the advice he gave to Jaeger. And Jaeger deserves every bit of criticism he gets for his handling of the gaffe. Innocent mistakes can be forgiven, but Jaeger’s failure to notify the candidate and request an immediate, official legal opinion from Stenehjem smacks of cover up.

On a related note, I think this is an issue the legislature needs to address. We need some firm rules as to what happens when a mistake like this takes place. Election officials are humans. Mistakes happen. But we need to be open and transparent about how we handle those mistakes, and I don’t think that’s happening with Jaeger or Stenehjem.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com. In 2011 he was a finalist for the Watch Dog of the Year from the Sam Adams Alliance and winner of the Americans For Prosperity Award for Online Excellence. In 2013 the Washington Post named SAB one of the nation's top state-based political blogs, and named Rob one of the state's best political reporters. He writes a weekly column for several North Dakota newspapers, and also serves as a policy fellow for the North Dakota Policy Council.

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