Native American rights advocates who went to bat against voter suppression and disenfranchisement in last year's mid-term elections—and championed unprecedented voter turnout—are gearing up to renew their fight in key battleground states ahead of the already fraught 2020 presidential elections.
"We are looking at mobilizing five, maybe six states" with significant Native American populations and where there have been concerns over voter access and turnout, says OJ Semans, co-director of Four Directions voting rights advocacy group. Semans is a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe.
Last year, Semans worked to ensure Native American voters across the country had access to the polls. Among his group's successes was the mobilization of an unprecedented number of Native American voters in North Dakota for the 2018 mid-terms. In his preparation for the 2020 elections, he's setting his sights on Nevada, Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan, and North Carolina.
In many states, Native Americans are dissuaded from going to the polls by voter ID laws that require identification with proof of address that it is difficult for many to obtain: many Native American nations are located in rural areas without formal addresses. What's more, polling places are often situated far from those nations. Semans is pushing election commissions across the country to open polls in places that will lessen the financial and travel burdens that Native Americans would otherwise face when they try to vote.
North Dakota, where Four Directions focused its efforts last year, passed a law in 2017 requiring that voters supply identification with proof of address at the polls. Many North Dakota Native American nations are situated in rural areas without street names and numbers, which has left many tribe members without the identification necessary to vote. State voting officials suggested last year that Native Americans trying to vote contact their local 911 coordinators to obtain addresses and use those to obtain identification. Citing several examples of voters who still experienced complications, Native Americans sued election officials days before the election, but a federal judge dismissed the case.
North Dakota Native Americans had been slated to vote overwhelmingly for former Senator Heidi Heitkamp, a Democratic incumbent who made Native American rights a cornerstone of her campaign and legislation. The state officials overseeing the election were Republican.
In response to obstacles in North Dakota during the mid-term elections, Four Directions activists, with support from Claremont Graduate University, developed a system whereby Native American voters could go to polling places and point to their places of residence on electronic maps that would then generate addresses. Officials from their tribal nations, who were present at polling sites, would then use those addresses to issue their members identification documents on tribal letterhead.
"And it worked," Semans says of his unusual bid to help Native American voters circumvent restrictions. Although Heitkamp was defeated by her Republican challenger, Kevin Cramer, North Dakota saw what news coverage described as an unprecedented turnout from Native American voters. In Rolette County, located in the Turtle Mountain Reservation, for example, turnout was up by more than 50 percent over the 2014 mid-term elections, according to state statistics.
North Dakota officials appear to herald Native American turnout in the mid-terms as a success of the state's election policy. "Based on the November 2018 election results in counties that included a Native American sovereign nation, the voter turnout was higher than in any election in the previous decade," North Dakota Secretary of State Alvin Jaeger writes in an email. "As it has done in the past, this office will continue to provide voter education of how and where to vote for all qualified voters in the state. The laws in North Dakota provide equal voting access to all voters regardless of ethnic origin."
Ahead of the 2020 election, Semans plans to work together with tribes to establish formal addresses for voters in North Dakota and elsewhere to ensure that identification laws do not hinder Native voters.
In other target states, officials overseeing elections say they are confident that Native Americans will have equal access to the polls. In Wisconsin, where some argue that a 2015 voter ID law has dissuaded voters from going to the polls, state officials are confident the laws have not. "At the election, we had record turnout for a mid-term election of more than 59 percent," Reid Magney, spokesman for the Wisconsin Elections Commission writes in an email. "That indicates to me that voter photo ID law was not a significant impediment to voting in this election."
Magney wrote that the Wisconsin voter ID laws permit the use of ID cards issued by federally recognized Native American tribes, and that the WEC was working with the tribes in the state "to ensure local election officials know what those tribal IDs look like so they will be readily accepted." He added, "Recently, the WEC has been helping groups working to make sure Native Americans have proof-of-residence documents that are necessary for voter registration. We recognize that some people living on tribal lands may have non-traditional addresses and living arrangements, and have given guidance on accommodations provided by Wisconsin law that can be used in those situations."
Nevada is another state of focus for Semans, even though voters there do not need to present identification at the polls. In the state there are many Native American nations—19 recognized by the United States government—but relatively low Native American voter turnout, and some tribes have recently sued over lack of access to voter registration and polling places.
Jennifer A. Russell, a spokeswoman for Secretary of State Barbara K. Cegavske, wrote in an email that: "The Nevada Secretary of State's office always works diligently to ensure all of Nevada's eligible voters are able to participate in our elections. To that end, we have increased the number of polling locations on Indian reservations. Legislation was passed in 2017 that allows Native American tribes to request polling places on reservations for early voting and Election Day and several tribes have taken advantage of that opportunity."
Arizona, Michigan, and North Carolina officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment. All three have faced criticism for enacting what some call suppressive voting restrictions in recent years. In 2016, Arizona legislators moved to restrict mail-in ballots. Last year, advocates in Michigan charged that voting laws there were "restrictive" on account of requiring matching addresses for voter registration and driver's licenses. In 2018, North Carolina enacted legislation requiring that voters present photo identification at the polls.
For Semans and his team, the voter turnout in the 2018 mid-term election proved the impact of the Native vote and grassroots organizing, particularly in Montana. "In fact, [Senator] John Tester could thank Four Directions and the northern Montana tribes for his re-election just three short months ago," Semans wrote in a recent press release. "Had we not sued to expand polling places, thousands of First Americans wouldn't have been able to vote in 2018. Senator Tester received 33 votes out of every 34 cast on Montana Indian Reservations."
Semans is buoyed in his work toward 2020 by what he characterizes as a surge in Native American political engagement during the mid-terms. "What we did in North Dakota wasn't in vain," he says. "We were able to show that voter suppression will not work. We were able to show the power of that vote."