Every Bill Gets Vote in North Dakota

17 August, 2016

It took just two weeks for lawmaker Howard Anderson Jr. to get a vote on his bill.

Anderson serves in the North Dakota State Senate. His bill would help people seeking medical help for a drug overdose avoid arrest.

In most legislatures across the United States, including the U.S. Congress, it is a big deal to get a vote on a bill. But in North Dakota, every bill proposed is guaranteed a vote.

Anderson's bill was one of over 900 introduced in the last North Dakota legislative session. All bills that were not withdrawn got votes and over half were passed and signed into law, including Anderson's.

'Good Thing' for North Dakota

"I think it's a good thing," said North Dakota House Majority Leader Al Carlson.

"We are a citizens' legislature. We don't get paid a lot of money. We go into session for 80 days every two years. And if you introduce a bill, you are going to get a hearing and a vote."

That is a big difference from other legislatures. In the U.S. Congress, for example, only 5 percent of the 11,000 bills proposed during the current term got a vote. Only 2 percent passed and were signed into law by President Barack Obama.

Better Odds in North Dakota

There are no such long odds facing sponsors of bills in North Dakota, a state just south of the Canadian border.

Anderson said his bill makes sure people are not afraid to call for emergency help after a drug overdose for fear of getting arrested. The senator said he hoped his bill would save lives.

North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple speaks to state's legislature on August 2.
North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple speaks to state's legislature on August 2.

Carlson and Anderson are members of the Republican Party, the majority party in North Dakota. But the state's Democratic Party lawmakers also like the guarantee of every bill getting a vote.

North Dakota Senate Minority Leader Mac Schneider, a Democrat, said that in most legislatures it is easy for a committee chair to kill a bill. But with the requirement that every bill get a vote, Schneider said, Democratic proposals can pass -- even in mostly Republican North Dakota.

As examples, he points to Democratic bills to help college students. The legislature passed measures to help students change terms on their student loans and to set limits on student fees at state colleges.

His opinion: It is one thing for a committee chair to kill a popular bill with few looking, but another for lawmakers to vote against a popular bill when the vote is made in public.

What About the Crazy Stuff?

But surely, some really "crazy" bills must get votes, right?

Schneider said he can't think of many. It might be because members know whatever they propose will get a vote and few lawmakers want to defend a bill other members consider strange, he said.

He told VOA the only example he could think of was a bill that required people to keep their car headlights on while driving both during the daytime and at night.

"This made sense to one of our members, but the majority voted it down," Schneider said.

Dana Michael Harsell teaches political science at the University of North Dakota. He said the "every bill gets a vote" rule follows a long tradition of citizen democracy in North Dakota.

It is more than just the vote guarantee, which is unique among the 50 states. Many North Dakota state legislators leave their home telephone or cell phone numbers on the state's website.

As popular as it is in North Dakota, Harsell said, the requirement that all bills get a vote probably would not work in larger states.

For example, New York has a population of 19.8 million, 26 times larger than that of North Dakota's 756,927. New York state lawmakers consider about 12,000 bills in a legislative session, about 13 times as much as North Dakota, according to FiscalNote.com.

"I don't know how it would work elsewhere," said Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner of his state's vote guarantee. "I just know that it works in North Dakota."

But Wardner said even North Dakota has rules. For example, to get a vote a bill must be proposed during the first part of the 80-day legislative term. There are exceptions. But no matter the party of the sponsor, there has to be a "pretty good" reason to allow a bill to be considered past the deadline, he said.

I'm Bruce Alpert.

Bruce Alpert reported this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in this Story

overdose -- n. an amount of a drug or medicine that is too much and usually dangerous

introduce -- v. to submit a bill to a legislature

long odds -- adj. very little chance of happening

sponsor -- n. the person in a legislature who writes and introduces a bill

unique -- adj. very unusual

deadline -- n. a date or time when something must be finished