BISMARCK - Backers of a proposed constitutional amendment seeking to ensure only U.S. citizens can vote in North Dakota elections submitted nearly 36,000 petition signatures Friday, July 6.

Gary Emineth, a former state Republican Party chairman who's running for a state Senate seat in Bismarck this year, is leading the charge to alter the North Dakota Constitution. He arrived at Secretary of State Al Jaeger's office with 35,883 signatures a few days ahead of the deadline to gather 26,904 of them to get the question on the November ballot.

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Emineth said the measure's backers wanted to "embed" the language in the constitution, making it harder for state lawmakers to change. He said the constitution was "ambiguous" on the issue, adding that they "wanted to get out ahead" of any local governments that may look to allow noncitizens to vote.

"We believe most North Dakotans support this," he said, later arguing the measure is about "protecting (and) preserving" U.S. citizens' voting rights.

Deputy Secretary of State Jim Silrum previously said he wasn't aware of any convictions for noncitizens voting in North Dakota, but those cases are handled locally.

Emineth said the six-week signature-gathering effort cost $250,000. He said they received backing from the Virginia-based Liberty Initiative Fund, a group that typically focuses on municipal issues like term limits, preventing "eminent domain abuse" and stopping civil asset forfeiture, according to its website.

"We're fighting the primary, the timing and other campaigns, it was very difficult to raise money in-state," Emineth said. "We suspect most of the money will be raised in-state for the next process of getting the message out."

Emineth said they hired Advanced Micro Targeting, a Las Vegas-based political consulting firm that helped with the successful crime victims' rights measure known as Marsy's Law, for the signature-gathering process.

Emineth said the issue could help fire up the Republican base ahead of the midterm elections, but that wasn't the intent of the measure. His opponent, incumbent Democratic state Sen. Erin Oban, said she's focused on issues facing her district, such as K-12 funding, property taxes and public employee issues.