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Ex-GOP leader fights ND Election Day campaign ban

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BISMARCK, N.D. — A former North Dakota Republican Party chairman who doesn't want to take down the political signs in his yard before Nov. 6 has filed a federal lawsuit challenging a century-old state law that bans campaigning on Election Day.

Gary Emineth argued Wednesday that the ban violates the free-speech rights of Republicans and Democrats alike.

The law, which dates to 1911, bars anyone from attempting to influence others to vote, or not vote, for any candidate or ballot measure on Election Day. The current version exempts billboards and bumper stickers, but North Dakota's political parties believe it applies to all other forms of advertising, including radio and television spots, newspaper ads and yard signs.

To comply with the ban, political candidates and their supporters often scurry to take down yard signs and banners before midnight the day before Election Day.

"To tear all these yard signs down, you can't tell anybody, encourage people to vote for a candidate on Election Day — I think it's totally foolish," said Emineth, a businessman and longtime Republican activist who served as the state party's chairman from 2007 to 2010.

"In a republic where we elect people to represent us, why would you, on the day you do all your business ... you're going to offend somebody because you've got a sign up?" he added.

Secretary of State Al Jaeger, North Dakota's top elections official, said he and local prosecutors often get complaints on Election Day about broadcast or newspaper advertisements and yard signs that are left standing.

Prosecutors said Wednesday they did not know of anyone who had been charged with illegal campaigning under the law. Violations are punishable by a $500 fine.

Emineth, who has several signs in his yard in Lincoln, just southeast of Bismarck, said the ban was "something that's kind of bugged me for a long time." He didn't think about suing, however, until he became aware of the Center for Competitive Politics, a Virginia organization that challenges what it regards as unreasonable election restrictions.

The center is representing Emineth in the case. Attorney Allen Dickerson said Wednesday it is common for states to restrict political displays near polling places "to avoid problems with voting intimidation and things of that kind."

North Dakota's law, however, bans campaigning anywhere in the state, he said.

"Something that says that any person who in any way attempts to convince people how to vote, that is, to my knowledge, unique," Dickerson said. "To have something that's statewide, and universal, there's sort of a difference in kind there."

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Bismarck, asks a federal judge to declare the law unconstitutional and prohibit it from being enforced. It was filed against Jaeger, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and Richard Riha, the state's attorney in Burleigh County, where Emineth lives.

Stenehjem voted to repeal the law in 1999, when he was a state senator, but that effort ultimately failed in the state House. Legislative records show Stenehjem told a House committee then that he believed the ban was unconstitutional. He was elected attorney general the following year.

Stenehjem said Wednesday his office would respond quickly to the lawsuit. He declined further comment.

North Dakota's Democratic Party leapt to the defense of the law Wednesday. A party spokeswoman, Rania Batrice, said it served to respect voters' privacy.

"For decades, North Dakotans have agreed that campaigning should stop on Election Day," Batrice said in a statement.