New oil workers key bloc in ND Senate race

Associated Press Modified: November 4, 2012 at 4:15 pm •  Published: November 4, 2012
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The oil industry is making sure its work force knows how to participate. A recent newsletter from the North Dakota Petroleum Council instructed workers who live in recreational vehicles or "skid shacks"— tiny huts, often no larger than a single-car garage, which can be hauled on flatbed trailers — how to request mail ballots.

The Brighter Future Alliance, a nonprofit group with ties to prominent North Dakota Republicans, has conducted voter information workshops in several of the temporary housing camps dotted throughout western North Dakota.

"We have focused on what we think is a critical thing for the country, and that is to pursue domestic energy supplies..." said Shane Goettle, an alliance official and former aide to Republican Sen. John Hoeven. "I think they can well be motivated to show up."

It's unclear how many new workers will vote.

Patty Caldwell, who started cleaning trailer houses at North Dakota oil well drilling sites more than a year ago to stave off foreclosure of her home in Oregon, said she wanted to make her voice heard.

"I just figured that I'm part of this community now," said Caldwell, whose company is in New Hradec, a hamlet about 10 miles north of Dickinson. "I have friends here. There's issues that I'm concerned about."

Monty Leonard, who drives a truck for a company that hauls water for the oil industry, came here from Oklahoma two years ago. He is casting his first vote in North Dakota.

Leonard said he has been following the presidential campaign, but is not familiar with the North Dakota candidates.

"I haven't been here very long, so I don't know the people," Leonard said of the candidates.

The potential magnitude of the oilfield vote — if it votes — is clearly visible. Across the area, rows of temporary trailers are plunked in the middle of brown, treeless pastures, while smoke-belching earth movers prepare space for new housing developments and business construction.

This year, as many as 4,300 new voters have been added to a state voter database in the nine largest oil-producing counties. That's more people than live in 26 of North Dakota's 53 counties, and a significant number in a state where 160,000 votes could elect either Berg or Heitkamp in their closely fought race.

Almost 533,000 North Dakotans are eligible to vote, a 7 percent increase since the last presidential election, the state Commerce Department says.

Meyer, a Democrat, said she has tried to "hit the new areas" in her re-election campaign.

She said some of the workers had absentee ballot paperwork.

"The vast majority of them that I visited with said, 'We work 16 hours a day, and we have no intention of voting" in North Dakota, she said.

Other lawmakers said they doubted the new residents would be rushing to the polls.

"I don't think they're going to influence (election results) a lot for the local stuff. They're really just doing their work, and sending money home to their families," said state Rep. Bob Skarphol, a Republican from Tioga.

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