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Voter ID Laws May Deter North Dakota Native Americans From The Polls

Retiring of colors at the end of the ceremony by the Sisseton-Wahpeton Vietnam Veterans Kit Fox Society honor guard.

CREDIT: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Flickr.

North Dakota is the only place in the United States where citizens don’t have to register to vote. Residents show up at their local polling place on Election Day and simply cast their ballot.

With such a small population, the state’s no-registration policy historically worked smoothly. Election officials would often recognize residents at the polls. If a voter’s eligibility was ever in question, North Dakota law allowed those officials to directly vouch for the voter. Everyone knew one another, and that was proof enough to vote.

Until last year, that is, when North Dakota’s legislature passed an amendment called H.B. 1332, modifying the state’s voting laws to increase regulations concerning what forms of ID can be considered valid for voting.

Voter ID isn’t new in North Dakota. While residents of the state don’t have to register to vote, some form of identification at the polls has been required since 2003.

What has changed drastically in North Dakota’s current voting landscape, however, is just how tight its voter ID requirements have become, and the populations they may affect.

North Dakota’s H.B. 1332 was called “the strictest voter ID law in the nation,” with regards to its implementation, by Heather Smith, Executive Director of the North Dakota branch of the ACLU, at a news conference last month.

Under the amendment, just five forms of identification are acceptable at North Dakota polling places: a driver’s license, state non-driver’s license, tribal ID card, student ID certificate, or long-term care ID certificate.

But it turns out that only two of those forms of ID are actually written into the law itself.

H.B. 1332 explicitly grants North Dakota Secretary of State Al Jaeger the authority to prescribe “an alternative form of identification…if the individual does not possess an official form of identification,” in the language of the amendment. An official form of ID includes a driver’s license or non-driver ID card. The law also allows for a combination of ID to be provided in order to meet all state requirements.

In an interview with Secretary of State Al Jaeger, the Secretary said that the intent of the law itself, as well as his interpretation of it, is simply to ensure that all who show up to the polls in North Dakota are valid members of the electorate, and nothing more.

Some North Dakota voters, however, don’t necessarily agree.

Tyler Anderson is a junior at the University of North Dakota. He’s studying commercial aviation in order to become a pilot. Anderson voted in North Dakota’s last general election and plans to vote again in November.

But Anderson is skeptical of the purpose of the state’s more restrictive ID requirements.

“They haven’t shown anything where there’s been any voter fraud,” Anderson said in an interview.

Before last year, if a resident did not have proper ID, he or she could produce a utility bill to provide proof of residency, or sign a voter affidavit—essentially a signed document stating that a voter is who they say they are. In the last general election, North Dakotans signed around 10,519 voter affidavits, according to INFORUM.

With the passage of H.B. 1332, affidavits are no longer allowed under North Dakota law. Additionally, utility bills are no longer acceptable, and all identification must include a home address and date of birth.

Anderson, who is originally from Minnesota, had to obtain a student identification certificate from a campus administrative office in order to vote. But beyond that, he believes the laws don’t affect him, personally.

“It was pretty easy,” he said. “I think the university themselves did a pretty good job of advertising.”

When questioned about Native American and disabled populations, two groups the changes to North Dakota law might most adversely affect, Anderson said he thinks some lawmakers are “just trying to get in the way.” His sentiment is echoed by activists and citizens around the country working to combat more restrictive voter ID laws.

For Secretary of State Al Jaeger, and those on the other side of the issue, getting in the way is not the goal at all. According to him, he’s just trying to keep elections running smoothly.

Jaeger cited the new restriction on the use of utility bills at the polls in North Dakota as an example of a problem in the previous system that could reduce efficiency in elections.

“There’s a lot of different complications that would come up in those situations,” Jaeger said, talking about voters who present utility bills at polling sites. He cited that for multiple individuals at a single residence, a utility bill would only provide valid ID for the person whose name is on the bill, potentially creating a headache for election officials.

Whether or not that’s the case, it’s precisely these stipulations around utility bills, affidavits, and the like from the Secretary of State that have ignited a storm of controversy over the implementation of the new ID requirements and their effects on certain groups.

In North Dakota, the label ‘certain groups’ has largely referred to Native American tribal groups living both on and off reserves in the state, as well as a few other minority populations.

Currently, Native Americans make up about 5 percent of North Dakota’s total population. About one-third of the state’s Native American tribal governments do not include a home address on their tribal ID cards.

The tribes in question are the Spirit Lake Tribe, the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, and the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa located in Roulette County. While Native American media outlet Indian Country Today Media Network reports that three tribes currently hold tribal ID without home addresses, Jaeger cited just two tribes when talking about the issue. Confusion may stem from the fact that the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, while primarily located in South Dakota, also have two counties in North Dakota.

For these native populations, because of the omission of address, their tribal IDs, while technically permissible, are rendered effectively invalid for voting purposes.

In an attempt to resolve the issue, the North Dakota ACLU and other advocacy organizations sent official letters to the office of Secretary of State Jaeger. Within the letters, the organizations provided solutions to remedy the situation. Proposed ideas included expanding forms of acceptable ID to include passports, North Dakota Game and Fish Licenses, and concealed weapon licenses, among other things.

Jaeger claimed that in the documents sent by the ACLU “there were several inaccurate conclusions.” One of those inaccuracies has to do with the solutions proposed by the advocacy organizations.

The solutions given by the ACLU are “not possible,” according to Jaeger. He noted that in North Dakota it is more difficult to get hunting licenses and concealed weapons licenses than some forms of ID laid out by his office.

Jaeger elected to stand by his own interpretation of North Dakota law, publicly announcing his decision at a news conference last month.

With November elections around the corner, the timetable left for tribal governments to resolve the ID issue is, as a result, short.

On one side of the debate, supporters of North Dakota’s new voter ID regulations cite free non-driver’s ID cards offered at Department of Transportation (DOT) offices as an easy solution for those who lack other valid forms of ID. Native Americans without the proper ID can obtain one for free at the nearest DOT, avoiding the tribal ID issue entirely.

But for North Dakota residents without a driver’s license, or without the money and time necessary to head to the DOT, a non-driver’s ID isn’t exactly cost-free. Between travel expenses and fees for documents, costs can add up to more than some are willing to pay.

Additionally, for North Dakota’s tribal governments, the costs of issuing new IDs for their tribal members are an unexpected expense at a time when governments across the country are slashing their budgets.

Some tribal groups are electing to revamp their ID’s, while other organizations are claiming the overhaul is an unfair burden. It still remains unclear just how voter ID changes in North Dakota are going to affect the quality of elections.

Quinlan Mitchell is a reporter with Generation Progress.

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