By Elizabeth Chuck Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 7/15/2011 1:21:41 PM ET 2011-07-15T17:21:41

North Dakotans will vote on whether the state needs to "clarify" its status after a local history buff discovered a flaw in its constitution that has created a state of confusion — over whether North Dakota is even a state at all.

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The 82-year-old Grand Forks resident, John Rolczynski, says he believes North Dakota is still technically a territory, 122 years after it officially joined the United States.

The misunderstanding stems from one word that was omitted in the state constitution that was written up in 1889, Rolczynski told msnbc.com.

Rolczynski, who was born in North Dakota and taught history there for years, was offered the chance to write a book on his state. It was during research for the book, in 1995, that Rolczynski found the error.

"When I found the flaw, I was having dinner with a friend. I called him over and said, 'Look at this! They forgot the word executive!'" Rolczynski told msnbc.com from his Grand Forks elder care home. "The next morning, we made an appointment and we drove 70 miles to Fargo to talk to the U.S. attorney there."

Article XI, Section 4 of the state constitution declares each official in the "legislative assembly and judicial department" must take an oath before starting office.

But the U.S. Constitution, Rolczynski said, mandates that senators, representatives, state legislators and "all executive and judicial officers" take an oath to uphold the Constitution. By not including that line, North Dakota defied the U.S. Constitution, according to Rolczynski.

Some help from a state senator
Determined to fix the error, Rolczynski spoke to legislators around the state and in Washington, D.C., even writing to then-President Bill Clinton. It wasn't until 2003 that he finally found an ally to help him: State Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo.

“He reached out to so many people, but I guess people were kind of reluctant to respond to his requests,” Mathern told The Grand Forks Herald. “I believe that there are issues sometimes that don’t seem that important but are in fact important to some citizens, and this is one of those, so I responded to him.”

Rolczynski was ecstatic.

"Mathern invited me to come to Bismarck and testify in front of a committee," he told msnbc.com. "I didn't receive an answer, then finally learned [my request for an amendment] had been turned down."

Mathern persisted a few more times, and this year, he got the legislature to finally pass the amendment.

"We'll vote on it in November of 2012," Rolcynski said. "The people of North Dakota have to approve it."

Before teaching, Rolczynski served in the U.S. Air Force — one of his trainers was Charles Lindbergh, he said — and took political science classes because of his father's wish for him to be a lawyer. Rolczysnki ended up getting a degree in Spanish, French, and social sciences, and later learned Russian. He told the Grand Forks Herald he credits his attention to detail to the skills he learned as a Russian linguist in the Air Force in the 1950s.

But the impact of the lone missing word may not be as critical to statehood as Rolczynski insists, Mathern added.

“I really didn’t believe that this was an issue that was going to place our status as a state or our decisions in jeopardy,” he said to the Herald. “But John is passionate, John is convinced that this is a fatal flaw and I think sometimes as legislators it behooves us to give people a vehicle to express their citizenship.”

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