In the weeks leading up to the 2018 midterm elections, Native American groups in North Dakota rushed to help thousands of tribal citizens obtain proper ID if they wanted to vote legally.
This demand, which activists claimed amounted to a form of voter suppression, had been challenged in court.
North Dakota officials on Thursday announced a proposed settlement agreement with two of the tribes involved in a lawsuit, addressing many lingering concerns that the state is allowing “massive voting deprivation” of members. of the tribe.
“This settlement, if finalized, will make it easier for Native Americans to vote,” said Tim Purdon, lawyer for the Spirit Lake and Standing Rock Sioux tribes, on Friday.
To vote in the last election, tribal members had to obtain a new state-issued or tribal-issued ID showing their mailing address. This affected around 5,000 tribal citizens with ID showing a post office box instead – used more commonly than home addresses.
Some of these tribal residents live in rural areas without proper street signage or obvious addresses.
North Dakota does not require residents to register before voting, and since 2004, voters must provide their identification at polling stations. State officials said the home address rule was intended to combat potential voter fraud.
Under the proposed deal, Purdon said, it would be the state’s responsibility to assign and verify mailing addresses before an election. Tribal citizens who do not know their home address would be allowed to identify their place of residence using a map, and state and county officials would then work with the tribe to determine the correct address. for the voter.
The secretary of state would also coordinate with the governor’s office and the state’s Department of Transportation to bring the agency to every booking 30 days before an election and issue free IDs for non-drivers.
Tribe members had previously complained that these sites were too far away, making it logistically more difficult to obtain identification.
In addition, the state would reimburse tribal governments up to a certain amount per election for administrative costs associated with issuing identity documents and addresses.
Purdon said the Spirit Lake and Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Councils have yet to approve the settlement before a federal consent order can make the agreement binding. Purdon, who said his company handled the case on a voluntary basis, said the tribes were “happy” and members of Spirit Lake attended the mediation talks.
Neither tribe immediately responded to requests for comment on when they would consider the settlement.
The proposed deal comes after a federal judge on Monday dismissed the state’s request to dismiss the tribes’ lawsuit, with the case due to be tried in the coming months.
The office of Secretary of State Al Jaeger, the state’s top election official, said on Thursday the goal was now to “ensure that Native Americans who are qualified voters can vote in 2020 and beyond.” .
The announcement follows Jaeger’s office which said last week it would give tribal officials the power to verify reserved ballots, allowing people without ID to vote.
Native American voting rights groups have expressed support for the announced changes.
“I’m very happy with the way things turned out,” said OJ Semans Sr., co-executive director of Four Directions, who coordinated a campaign to get the vote in 2018. “I’m just sorry we had to have to. go through all the emotions to prove the state wrong. “
The fight began when individual members of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians said they were disenfranchised in 2014 and filed a lawsuit in 2016 claiming the state’s strict laws on the voter IDs were unconstitutional.
In September 2018, a federal appeals court sided with the state and overturned a district court judge who ruled PO boxes were acceptable. The United States Supreme Court, responding to an emergency appeal, voted 6-2 to allow the appeal court’s decision to continue.
The plaintiffs, however, found the support of Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who wrote in dissent that “the potential for voter confusion seems serious here.”
The Spirit Lake Tribe and Standing Rock Sioux, along with six other individual plaintiffs, filed their lawsuit against the state in 2019.
The 2018 election was particularly important in North Dakota, where Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp’s seat in Congress was under threat and she won her seat in 2012 by less than 3,000 votes. Heitkamp lost the 2018 race to his Republican challenger, Kevin Cramer.
Although Native Americans make up just over 5% of North Dakota’s 750,000 residents, congressional elections can easily garner a few thousand votes, according to voting rights activists.
The North Dakota Native Vote Group, which launched a voter education campaign ahead of the state presidential preference caucuses on March 10, said the settlement agreement “will ease the burden of unnecessary voter identification requirements. “.
But Nicole Donaghy, executive director of the nonprofit, said there remains a need to help tribal members who do not live on reserves and that the state is ensuring that election officials know about it. changes so that no one is mistakenly turned away.