FARGO-North Dakota's secretary of state race in the Nov. 6 election has defied predictability. It features two Republican candidates running as independents and a Democratic challenger.
The race took an unusual twist when the GOP nominee in the race, Will Gardner, dropped out after news reports of his arrest years earlier on a "peeping Tom" charge outside a woman's dormitory.
Al Jaeger, the incumbent, was rejected by Republicans for the endorsement. After Gardner withdrew, Jaeger entered the race as an independent, but later secured the support of the Republican Party, his affiliation since he was first elected to the office in 1992.
Mike Coachman, a retired Air Force service member who lives in Larimore, also identifies as a Republican but is running as an independent. Josh Boschee, a member of the North Dakota House from Fargo, is the Democratic challenger.
Boschee said he is running to modernize the office, which supervises elections and handles a wide variety of business registrations. He accuses Jaeger of falling months behind in delivering an online business registration service.
"It is frustrating that a good amount of the paperwork can't be done online," Boschee said. A sales manager for a Fargo real estate firm, Boschee said he's heard from many business people and lawyers who are frustrated that North Dakota business registrations remain a paper process, while online is available in neighboring states like Minnesota and South Dakota.
"That was a common theme wherever I went," on the campaign trail, Boschee said. He said he will create a "one-stop shop" state government portal for businesses, nonprofits and family farms, enabling access to multiple agencies. "I think some of my biggest fans are attorneys," who often handle business registrations.
Actually, Jaeger said, an online registration system, FirstStop, soon will be ready and is now being tested before it rolls out. Earlier this year, Jaeger said he expected the new system to launch in mid-September.
"We're still hoping that will be implemented by the end of the year," Jaeger said. "We're working on it every day. When it's deployed, it's going to work. We're doing it right. I'm not going to rush this for political reasons."
Jaeger has served as the face of North Dakota's voter identification law, which was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court but has drawn national attention for what critics say are requirements intended to disenfranchise almost 70,000 American Indian voters, since those who live on reservations typically lack a street address, as required by the law.
Jaeger defends the law, but his two challengers have criticized the law and the way Jaeger has handled the issue.
North Dakota's voter identification system "ensures every voter is a qualified elector," Jaeger said. "We actually have a simple system in North Dakota without voter registration."
Coachman said the effect of the new voter identification requirements is to disenfranchise Native American voters. He said it's a daunting task-perhaps impossible in the short time available-to sign up the potential 70,000 voters who will need new identification documents.
"So do you think that's not suppression?" Coachman said. "I believe in making it as easy as possible for residents to vote," provided they are U.S. citizens.