Fathers’ rights initiative makes North Dakota ballot

Supporters of a measure that would give fathers additional claims to child custody in divorce disputes have turned in enough signatures to appear on the North Dakota ballot this year.

The North Dakota Parental Rights Initiative would amend state law to create a legal presumption that both parents in a child custody case would be fit, barring “clear and convincing evidence” to the contrary. Both parents would be awarded equal parenting rights and equal custody of children without compelling arguments otherwise.

Backers of the measure turned in 15,001 signatures in June, and this week Secretary of State Al Jaeger (R) said his office had verified 14,400 of those signatures, more than the 13,452 required to make the November ballot.

Current state law unfairly favors mothers in custody disputes, backers say.

“It’s just the norm, right now, for Mom to get custody. And when that happens, Dad is cut out of the children’s lives. Fathers are both extremely important to both girls and boys. And we want to have our children grow up with parts of both parents,” Jill Bjerke, the lead sponsor of the initiative, said when her group turned in signatures in June.

Opponents said current state law focuses on the children involved in the dispute, rather than the parents. They focus on a provision that would require parents to share “residential responsibility” — that is, where the child lives — on an equal basis. That could mean a child is forced to live in two different cities, or two different states, when their parents separate, an arrangement the opponents say can be detrimental to the child.

North Dakota voters rejected a similar measure back in 2006, by a 56 to 44 percent margin. Voters in Walsh County, a small county on the Minnesota-North Dakota border, passed an equal parenting rights measure in 2012, though Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem (R) is challenging that initiative for preempting state law.

All 25 of the sponsors of the 2014 initiative [pdf] are women, and 21 of them hail from Grafton, the Walsh County seat.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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