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For Native Americans, the Battle Against Voter Suppression in North Dakota Is Only the Beginning

Indigenous high schoolers are organizing to let their families vote in an election they argue is designed to block them from the polls.
In northern North Dakota's Turtle Mountain, Native American students are set to walk out of class and march to polling places with signs encouraging community members to vote.

In northern North Dakota's Turtle Mountain, Native American students are set to walk out of class and march to polling places with signs encouraging community members to vote.

North Dakota Native Americans say they're fired up to vote following a fraught battle over a voter identification measure that they say amounts to a thinly veiled attempt by the state's Republican officials to bar indigenous people from the polls. What's more, Native American leaders promise that their renewed energy for political engagement will last far beyond Tuesday, citing overwhelming efforts by the community's youth to get out the vote.

"This is far from the election of a candidate; it's more of an empowerment of the people," says O.J. Semans, the co-director of Four Directions, a Native American voting rights group. "I see it continuing and nothing but good happening from it hereafter."

In northern North Dakota's Turtle Mountain, Native American students are set to walk out of class and march to polling places with signs encouraging community members to vote.

"They're taking it upon themselves to become involved," Semans says, adding that the youth has engaged in "trickle-up" activism, inspiring their elders of voting age to travel what can be great distances and overcome technical obstacles posed by the state to vote. "That encourages us knowing the fact that we have future generations stepping up to ensure that we, the Native Americans are going to have people like Barb (Semans' partner and fellow organizer) and I generation after generation after generation. Regardless of what they try, our future generations will know how to stand up to it."

Semans attributes his optimism to the fact that the several setbacks in his battle against voter suppression seem only to have emboldened Native American voters and activists in their push toward the polls. More than ever before, community members of all stripes are encouraging their families and fellow tribal nation members to do what they can to participate in the electoral process, he says.

In their latest setback last week, North Dakota's Spirit Lake Tribe sued North Dakota Secretary of State Alvin Jaeger in a last-minute bid to block a measure requiring that North Dakotans submit identification with proof of address. That lawsuit cited several North Dakota Native Americans who had obtained the necessary identification listing a residential address but were still unable to vote, despite going to great lengths to comply with the state's rule. Many North Dakota Native Americans live in rural areas on tribal lands, typically without named and numbered roads.

The state has charged that the requirement is designed to stop voter fraud, a phenomenon that the George W. Bush administration study found to be virtually non-existent. Native Americans like Semans say that the measure is a poorly disguised attempt by North Dakota Republicans to give their candidate, Kevin Cramer, an advantage against Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp, a longtime champion of Native American rights. In 2012, Heitkamp won against Republican Rick Berg by just a few thousand votes.

The state had advised Native Americans to obtain addresses from local 911 coordinators, but the lawsuit filed last week cited circumstances in which Native Americans with those addresses were still blocked from voting.

On Thursday, a federal judge tossed that lawsuit, which sought a temporary injunction against the residential address requirement.

"Last week's ruling was another blow to the backbone of democracy," Semans says. But he is neither discouraged nor surprised. "Lately, rulings like that have been more common that that. We realize sometimes civil rights battles aren't won in court; it's won by movement to make change."

In October, the Supreme Court upheld a lower-court decision in favor of the state's measure to require proof of residential address. That lower-court decision acknowledged that the requirement would discourage Native American voters but held that the overwhelming concern was the prevention of voter fraud.

Jaeger's office did not respond to Pacific Standard's request for comment on the ruling last week and whether it could ensure that Native Americans would enjoy constitutionally guaranteed access to the polls.

The court decisions, which in one case seemed to admit that a ramification of the residential address requirement would be to suppress native votes, may have amounted to obstacles to the Native electorate. But they also inspired tireless work by Semans and others.

"The Supreme Court ruling and the last judge's ruling required us to do what takes six months in a matter of weeks. I'm confident we met the call but we'll see tomorrow," Semans says. "But I can tell you everyone I've talked to are all excited about voted. It's not the issue of who wins and loses; the issue is they're not going to steal their voice by creating nuisance laws." Semans' Four Directions has developed a system with California's Claremont Graduate University that allows tribe members to point to residences on electric maps and generate addresses. On-site tribal officials then printed identification that the voters use to cast ballots. There had been some question as to whether state officials would accept that identification, but the IDs were accepted at a recent early voting event in Standing Rock, North Dakota, Semans reports.

"That's a big victory for us," he says. Tribal representatives will be available at North Dakota polling stations to ensure that members aren't turned away from the polls, Semans says.

Whether they will accept ballots submitted with identification generated on site is about more than just the mid-terms—it's about the future of Native American human rights.

"It goes back to tribal sovereignty to be able to create addresses," he says. But he expects the support of non-Native North Dakotans in tomorrow's final battle against what some say is a discriminatory and suppressive voting law. "It shouldn't take a court to change [the voting law]. It should be the good people of North Dakota saying this isn't right. We're used to losing in court. But we're also used to coming back and winning. It ain't going to stop us. We're still going fight to empower tribes. That's just how it is off in Indian Country."