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Native Americans Fight North Dakota Voter ID Laws

The state's Native American population is working overtime to give IDs to those who need them.
Chief Arvol Looking Horse, spiritual leader of the Sioux Nation. Credit: Josh Morgan/Reuters

Chief Arvol Looking Horse, spiritual leader of the Sioux Nation. Credit: Josh Morgan/Reuters

Last month, the Supreme Court voted 6-2 to uphold a North Dakota court of appeals ruling requiring an ID with a physical address to vote - a P.O. box simply won't do anymore. This law effectively disenfranchises at least 5,000 members of the state's Native American community - roughly 5% of North Dakota's whole population - who tend to vote Democrat and live on reservations without physical addresses. Fortunately, they are rolling up their sleeves and getting to work to make sure they are able to vote on Election Day next week.

Discrimination Against Natives

Despite being solidly Republican in the last 13 presidential elections North Dakota is the fourth-easiest state in which to vote, probably because it is the only state that does not require registration before voting. To vote there, all you need is proof of a physical address, or for someone to vouch for your identity (which is more likely than not given how small the state is.) These laws got harder after Heidi Heitkamp won her 2012 Senate race with a 3,000 vote majority that came from the Natives, 80% of whom voted for her.  Under Republican rule, the state passed laws making it harder for them to go to the polls in the 2014 midterms. Because of this, Natives filed a lawsuit in 2016 that wound up before the Supreme Court.

Heitkamp is currently locked into a tight race against representative Kevin Cramer, making her among the most likely Democrats to lose re-election, and this mass disenfranchisement will make the difference if she does. Secretary of State Alvin Jaeger has denied this, claiming the law encouraged people living on unmarked roads to get a letter with an address from their local 911 services.

However, a new lawsuit filed by the Native community refutes Jaeger's claims, citing several instances of Native voter suppression, such as what happened to Spirit Lake Tribes Dion Jackson, who got an ID with a physical address last year but then had his absentee ballot rejected because they couldn't find the address in the North Dakota Department of Transportation database. 

They also allege that the 911 system Jaeger cites is "characterized by disarray, errors, confusion, and missing or conflicting addresses." For example, Standing Rock Sioux have to rely on sheriff Frank Landeis, who is very difficult to reach by phone and doesn't always give the correct address when concerned citizens want to meet him.

"They didn't need an address when they took our children and rounded them up into boarding schools, and they didn't need an address when they conscripted us to fight in the military," said lawyer Chase Iron Eyes, who ran for Congress against Cramer in 2016 and lost. "But now they need our address when we want to exercise our right to vote."

How They're Fixing This

Thanks to the efforts of groups like Lakota People's Law Project and Four Directions, Natives are issuing free photo IDs with addresses in advance of next Tuesday's election. So far, they have managed to give out 2,000 IDs, effectively re-enfranchising 2/5ths of the native population. Much of this has come from donations: according to the Star Tribune, they have received $50,000 from the Native American Rights Fund, and $213,000 so far from a GoFundMe page called Help Standing Rock Vote. 

Other methods are being developed in case not everyone has IDs by election day. Four Directions' OJ Semans, a Sioux, is working with Claremont Graduate University in California on a new system that will allow Natives to show proof of address by pointing to their residence on an electronic map at polling stations. Tribal representatives on the other end would then send messages to poll workers confirming said proof.

Canvassing is also taking off in the final days before the election, with Standing Rock leading the way. There, voters both young and old are knocking on doors to convince their fellow citizens to get out the vote. By talking to people in person, and even taking them to the polls, they are able to provide answers to problems that otherwise might not even be considered - like whether they can fill out their ballots with blue or black-ink pens

There's a chance that even with all this work, Heitkamp will lose to Cramer. But if she wins, it will in large part be because of Native efforts to circumvent these laws designed to stop them voting.