Native Voters Turned Away at Polls Sue North Dakota

From left, Native American Rights Fund attorneys John Echohawk (Pawnee) and Matthew Campbell (Native Village of Gambell) look over a voting-rights complaint just filed in U.S. District Court in North Dakota. Courtesy NARF.

From left, Native American Rights Fund attorneys John Echohawk (Pawnee) and Matthew Campbell (Native Village of Gambell) look over a voting-rights complaint just filed in U.S. District Court in North Dakota. Courtesy NARF.

Stephanie Woodard

Stephanie Woodard

By Stephanie Woodard

Tribal elder, Dorothy Herman, voted in North Dakota for more than 40 years - until 2014, that is, when a new state law meant she couldn’t obtain acceptable identification for that election, no matter how hard she tried.

So, earlier this year, she and six more Native voters who were disenfranchised in 2014 filed a federal lawsuit challenging the state’s recently enacted limitations on the types of documents that can be used to obtain a ballot.

The list of documents does include tribal ID, along with driver’s licenses, non-driver IDs and long-term-care certificates. However, the item must show a residential address, and some tribal cards do not. In certain cases, tribes can’t include the information because tribal members’ residences don’t have the kind of street numbers used in off-reservation communities. The election safety net of past years is also gone; voters no longer have such options as signing an affidavit attesting to their identity.

The Native plaintiffs say the restrictions, passed by the North Dakota legislature in 2013 and tightened further in 2015, disproportionately burden and even disenfranchise Native American voters who, among other issues, live farther from offices where they can obtain alternative identification and are less likely to have the vehicle needed to get there. For example, Standing Rock residents have to drive up to 120 miles round trip to the nearest office that issues driver’s licenses. Natives are also poorer and more likely to find the fees and transportation costs prohibitive. By falling more heavily on Native people, says the lawsuit, these burdens violate the Voting Rights Act and the United States and North Dakota constitutions.

North Dakota Secretary of State, Al Jaeger, who is named as defendant in the suit because of his post as head elections official, refused to comment on the substance of the suit at this time, stating: “We have not had an opportunity to review [the lawsuit] and will do so with the Attorney General, who is our legal counsel.” Previously, Jaeger has gone on record publicly supporting the restrictions, saying they guarantee that only qualified voters cast a ballot.

Stephanie Woodard writes on human rights and culture, with an emphasis on Native issues. Many of her stories are archived at stephaniewoodard.blogspot.com. This blog first appeared as an article in Indian Country Today.

Update 08.01.16: A federal judge has issued an injunction preventing ND from enforcing the law. Read the New York Times article.