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Oil Workers a Focus in North Dakota

Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo
The campaigns of North Dakota Senate candidates Rep. Rick Berg (above) and former state Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp are seeking to capitalize on the growing number of transient oil workers in the state. North Dakota is the only state without voter registration, and it only requires residents to show proof of residency for the last 30 days to cast a ballot.

It’s almost impossible to poll that population. But operatives believe the oil workers lean Republican, given their profession, and so the GOP is seeking to capitalize on the temporary residents.

Republicans started a super PAC, Brighter Future Fund, to target this specific population. Shane Goettle, who runs the super PAC, said it has a budget of $60,000 to educate oil workers on voting requirements through radio and literature.

“We think that it’s probably to [Berg’s] advantage to have oil fields voters voting,” said Goettle, a Berg supporter. “The size of that advantage is hard to measure.”

But Heitkamp — a former energy company director at Dakota Gasification Co. — is also fighting for votes among the rural population. Her main campaign office is in Mandan, a city near Bismarck in the western part of the state. Berg’s team is based in Fargo, which is on the eastern border. She has also pledged to open a Congressional office near the oil fields if she’s elected.

More urgently, both campaigns are preparing for what could be a minefield of legal challenges based on the easy voting process — especially if the race is close on Election Day.

The Democratic nominee’s campaign has recruited attorneys for western North Dakota’s two main population centers: Williston and Dickinson.

“We have a legal team of North Dakota attorneys ready and in place and already have begun recruiting attorneys to monitor key districts to ensure that every North Dakotan who can vote is able to vote, and that includes monitoring Dickinson and Williston,” Heitkamp spokesman Brandon Lorenz said.

Republicans made similar legal moves, contacting attorneys in early summer to be poll watchers, checkers and challengers, according to local party officials.

Local election workers can flag suspect ballots and send them to the state’s attorney to investigate, according to Lee Ann Oliver, an elections specialist in the North Dakota secretary of state’s office. She said the state’s attorney can also investigate ballots at will.

And for the first time, Oliver said, North Dakota will notify other states about who votes. That way, she said, voters can vote in only one state. But it’s a process the state has just started to implement and could take time to finish after Election Day. If the race is close, as most operatives expect it to be, a litigious battle could ensue. Operatives compared the possibility to the 2008 Senate race recount in Minnesota — on steroids.

After all, North Dakota hasn’t had many competitive Senate races recently. The last time a race was this close? When retiring Sen. Kent Conrad (D) won his first term in this seat in 1986 by less than 1 point.


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