Abandoned in America

Published — February 13, 2020

Native American voters get boost in North Dakota

Canvassers line up on the Standing Rock reservation Monday, the day before the election. (Courtesy of the Lakota People’s Law Project)

After a lengthy legal fight, state and tribal officials reach settlement over ID law


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Native American voters in North Dakota may vote — even if they arrive at polling places without identification bearing a street address, according to a preliminary legal settlement announced Thursday. 

If approved, the settlement would end years of litigation over North Dakota’s voter identification requirements, which plaintiffs say disproportionately affected Native American voters.

The settlement “will ensure all Native Americans who are qualified electors can vote, relieve certain burdens on the Tribes related to determining residential street addresses for their tribal members and issuing tribal IDs, and ensure ongoing cooperation through mutual collaboration between the State and the Tribes to address concerns or issues that may arise in the future,” according to a joint statement by North Dakota Secretary of State Al Jaeger and the Spirit Lake and Standing Rock tribes. 

State officials in North Dakota last week announced a new administrative rulemaking meant to make voting easier for people using tribal identification and supplemental documentation. 

The new settlement — if approved by all parties — goes further: It would require North Dakota’s secretary of state to work with the state Department of Transportation and tribal governments to distribute free, non-driver photo identification on every reservation in the state within 30 days of statewide elections. 

Native Americans in North Dakota who vote in the 2020 election may mark their residence on a map if they do not have a street address. The state government will then be responsible for verifying the voter’s residential street address and providing the information to the voter and the tribe. It must also ensure the ballot is counted properly once that’s done. 

Lawyers for the Native American Rights Fund and the Campaign Legal Center, nonpartisan organizations that have sued the state on behalf of Native American tribes and voters in North Dakota, hailed the deal. 

“It was a breakthrough for the state to recognize its responsibility to ensure that Native Americans have access to the identification needed to exercise their voting rights,” said Molly Danahy, legal counsel at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, one of the organizations representing the voters and tribes who brought the suit. 

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“This fight has been ongoing for over four years, and we are delighted to come to an agreement that protects native voters,” Matthew Campbell, an attorney for the Native American Rights Fund, said in a statement.  

Versions of North Dakota’s voter identification law have been the subject of litigation for several years. 

A federal judge in 2018 found the requirement for identification carrying a residential street address disproportionately burdened Native American voters, the state’s largest minority group. He found Native Americans in North Dakota  are less likely to possess identification that met the requirements or the documentation required to obtain identification.

A federal appeals court in September 2018 lifted the stay that prevented the residential street address requirement from being enforced. The court’s majority opinion noted that “if any resident of North Dakota lacks a current residential street address and is denied an opportunity to vote on that basis, the courthouse doors remain open.” 

In October 2018, the Supreme Court declined to stay the appeals court ruling, allowing the street address requirement to go into effect for the November election. In a dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the “risk of disenfranchisement is large.”

North Dakota officials have instructed people without residential street addresses to contact  911 emergency coordinators in their county to request an address. State officials have repeatedly said the voter ID requirements weren’t meant to disenfranchise anyone, and most states require voters to have a residential address at some point. 

Plaintiffs filed a new lawsuit shortly before the 2018 election. The lawsuit said voters who live on reservations in North Dakota were struggling to comply, and tribes were pouring resources into assisting them and providing free identification to meet the requirements.

Many on the reservation use post office boxes and either didn’t know their residential street addresses or hadn’t had one assigned to them. The Center for Public Integrity wrote about low voter turnout on the Standing Rock reservation as part of its Kaleidoscope Award-winning Abandoned in America project in 2018. 

Some individual plaintiffs said they had requested absentee ballots using what they believed to be valid addresses, but had the requests rejected.

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision, advocates and tribal leaders worked to bring Native American voters to the polls, producing record turnout for a midterm election

Read more in Money and Democracy

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