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Native Americans Are Suing North Dakota Over Voter Suppression

It now appears Native American North Dakotans are unable to vote, even when they have proof of their residential addresses.
The Spirit Lake Tribe filed a complaint in federal court Tuesday against North Dakota Secretary of State Alvin Jaeger.

The Spirit Lake Tribe filed a complaint in federal court Tuesday against North Dakota Secretary of State Alvin Jaeger.

Native Americans are suing North Dakota over a voter identification measure that they say is turning the state's tribal nations away from the polls.

The Spirit Lake Tribe, based on a reservation in the east of the state, filed a complaint in federal court Tuesday against North Dakota Secretary of State Alvin Jaeger, according to court documents obtained by Pacific Standard. The suit seeks an injunction against a state requirement that voters present identification stating their residential address. Many Native Americans living on rural tribal lands in North Dakota do not have residential addresses, because those lands are typically without named and numbered roads.

"Native American voters have the same fundamental right to vote as every other North Dakotan," the complaint reads. "The Constitution guarantees that right. But the State's law requiring voters to present identification proving their current residential address imposes on them—and uniquely on them—a severe impediment to that right."

Four Directions, a Native American voting rights group, claims the address identification rule effectively blocking many Native Americans from the vote is a thinly veiled attack on the campaign of Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp, a vocal supporter of Native American rights. Heitkamp won against Republican Rick Berg by a slim margin of a few thousand votes in 2012.

In response to questions over whether it was actively suppressing Native American voters, Jaeger's office told Pacific Standard earlier this month that it was encouraging people living on unmarked roads to contact 911 coordinators to obtain a letter with an assigned address, which could be used to obtain the identification needed to vote.

But, according to the complaint, even when Native Americans have addresses, state authorities are rejecting their attempts to vote. The lawsuit cited a host of cases in which Native Americans with established addresses have been unable to cast ballots.

In one instance, Dion Jackson, a 34-year-old member of the Spirit Lake Tribe had a long-established address and it was listed on a state-issued I.D. obtained last year. Jackson applied for an absentee ballot in October, using the established address and I.D. number. Jackson's local Benson County Auditor/Treasurer rejected the application, the complaint reads, on the grounds that the address on the application was either invalid or not available in the North Dakota Department of Transportation database.

In another circumstance, Leslie and Clark Peltier, a couple belonging to the North Dakota-based Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, fear they will be turned away from their polling place "because the residential address on their IDs does not match the assigned 911 address for their home in the State's files."

Allegations abound of problems with the state's administration of addresses. Four Directions co-director O.J. Semans, a member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe, told Pacific Standard earlier this month that his organization was working with mapping experts at California-based Claremont Graduate University to allow tribal members to point to their residences on electronic maps that would generate addresses at polling places. There, on the spot, tribal representatives would issue documents attesting to those addresses on tribal letterhead.

It seems from the allegations compiled in the lawsuit that even going to great lengths to meet North Dakota's residential address requirement, there are still no guarantees that North Dakota's indigenous residents will be able to participate in the electoral process.

Four Directions, which helped identify disenfranchised voters for the lawsuit, declined to comment on the pending litigation. So too did the office of North Dakota Secretary of State Alvin Jaeger. The Spirit Lake Nation did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Thus far, North Dakota's Native Americans have enjoyed little success in the defense of their voting rights through the American court system. Earlier this month, the Supreme Court ruled to uphold a lower-court decision in favor of the residential address requirement. That lower-court decision acknowledged that such a requirement would deter Native American voters but maintained that preventing voter fraud was the overwhelming concern. Local rights advocates lambasted the decision as baseless.

"Republicans in the state legislature insist that the law is needed to prevent voter fraud—despite there being virtually no evidence that such fraud is a problem," Heather Smith, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union–North Dakota, told Pacific Standard earlier this month. "Instead, the real effect of their law will be to prevent voters whom they fear from going to the polls and having their say in who represents them."

The ongoing battle against voter suppression does not only affect Native Americans but a broad array of communities of color nationwide. Reports have shown that, in Georgia, Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who is running for governor, purged about 340,000 voter registrations incorrectly. Many of the voters he has purged were African American, according to reports. Civil rights groups have sued to stop Kemp from barring those registrations.

Whether voters of all ethnic backgrounds and party affiliations are allowed to vote will be determined by the courts. And the results of those rulings, in turn, will only become clear after the mid-term elections next Tuesday.