Judge Allows Election Day Campaigning in North Dakota

A federal judge has barred North Dakota officials from enforcing a century-old state law that makes campaigning on Election Day illegal, calling it a violation of free speech.

“There is no valid justification for the law in modern day society, nor any compelling state interest offered to support its continued existence,” Judge Daniel Hovland wrote Wednesday (October 31), issuing an injunction.

The far-reaching ban, challenged by Gary Emineth, a former GOP chairman in North Dakota, was meant to “secure the purity of elections” by protecting voters from last-minute charges hurled against candidates or ballot measures.

Most states regulate polling places, creating small buffer zones free of political activity, but North Dakota's strict law is unique. It outlaws almost all speech related to candidates, parties and ballot measures on Election Day. The ban includes yard signs, radio and television advertisements or even verbal persuasion, with narrow exceptions for permanent billboards or difficult-to-remove bumper stickers. Violators risk a $500 fine.  

“One can hardly conceive of a statute less narrowly tailored than a blanket prohibition on all election-related speech,” Hovland wrote. “Such a broad restriction on constitutional rights has rarely, if ever, been found to be constitutional, regardless of the context.”

What's more, he noted, the ban is inconsistent with the current elections process, which allows early voting. Thousands of North Dakotans have already cast their ballots, amid the din of political messages — speech allowed under the law.

“We appreciate the Court's quick and decisive order,” said Allen Dickerson, legal director of the Center for Competitive Politics, which represented Emineth. “As the Court noted, ‘the demise of this archaic law has long been recognized as inevitable.'”

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem will not appeal the ruling, he told The Associated Press. Instead, he will ask the legislature to repeal the law.

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