20,000 Native Voters for North Dakota?

Stephanie Woodard

Buffalo at play on the North Dakota portion of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, where voters are hoping for corrected IDs that will allow them to vote in November.

A major vot­ing hur­dle for Native Amer­i­cans in North Dako­ta used to be thought of as a kind of force of nature, sort of like grav­i­ty or sun­shine: Indi­an reser­va­tions didn’t have named, num­bered streets. And with­out these des­ig­na­tions on the trib­al IDs that Natives car­ry, they couldn’t vote in the state.

There was no way around the prob­lem. No res­i­den­tial address on trib­al IDs meant no bal­lot box access for Native peo­ple — unless they were will­ing to under­take pro­hib­i­tive­ly long and cost­ly dri­ves and oth­er hur­dles to get an alter­nate ID. It is a vot­er-sup­pres­sion tech­nique North Dako­ta tar­gets at its Native pop­u­la­tion,” accus­es OJ Semans, the Rose­bud Sioux co-direc­tor of Four Direc­tions civ­il rights group.

In Sep­tem­ber, the Eighth Cir­cuit Court of Appeals issued a deci­sion in a vot­ing-rights case brought by the Native Amer­i­can Rights Fund on behalf of Native plaintiffs.

The court backed North Dakota’s ID law.

End of sto­ry?

Or not. Why can’t tribes just go right ahead and name and num­ber their roads and high­ways? mused OJ Semans and Bret Healy, a con­sul­tant with Four Direc­tions. What’s to stop them? They are sov­er­eign nations, so there is no rea­son they can’t use North Dakota’s order­ly road-nam­ing con­ven­tions, already employed in var­i­ous forms by cities and coun­ties through­out the state.

The lack of named num­bered streets was not a force of nature after all, Semans and Healy real­ized, but a sim­ple admin­is­tra­tive func­tion that need­ed fixing.

North Dako­ta allows the equiv­a­lent of same-day reg­is­tra­tion, so the state’s five tribes can put offi­cials through­out each reser­va­tion dur­ing the sev­er­al-week ear­ly-vot­ing peri­od, which is already under­way, and on Elec­tion Day,” says Healy. The trib­al offi­cials can pro­vide ver­i­fi­ca­tion let­ters with trib­al­ly issued res­i­den­tial address­es to Native vot­ers who have lived on the reser­va­tion for at least 30 days, he says. The vot­ers can then use the ver­i­fi­ca­tion let­ter to vote. This means the per­haps 20,000 Native Amer­i­cans of vot­ing age on reser­va­tions will be assured they can vote in the Novem­ber election.”

On Octo­ber 8, Semans and his wife, Barb, co-direc­tors of Four Direc­tions, announced the new effort to Al Jaeger, the sec­re­tary of state and head elec­tions offi­cial. They asked for his pub­lic sup­port for what they called a sim­ple, ele­gant solu­tion” to the problem.

The state is using its ID law to keep us from vot­ing,” says Semans. But instead of fight­ing the law, we are solv­ing the prob­lem it caused.”

Nei­ther Sec­re­tary of State Al Jaeger’s elec­tion direc­tor nor the press office of Con­gress­man Kevin Cramer (R‑N.D.), who is run­ning against cur­rent Sen. Hei­di Heitkamp (D‑N.D.) in November’s elec­tion, respond­ed by press time with a com­ment on the trib­al effort or the poten­tial effect on the elec­tion of adding so many typ­i­cal­ly Demo­c­ra­t­ic voters.

Heitkamp applauds the idea of improved Native Amer­i­can vot­ing access, for which she has long advo­cat­ed. Last week, she helped intro­duce a bill to enhance Native vot­ing rights that would estab­lish equal treat­ment for trib­al IDs, among oth­er efforts. Said Heitkamp, Giv­en the num­ber of Native Amer­i­cans who have served, fought, and died for this coun­try, it is appalling that some peo­ple would still try and erect bar­ri­ers to sup­press their abil­i­ty to vote.”

Stephanie Woodard is an award-win­ning jour­nal­ist who has writ­ten inves­tiga­tive arti­cles for In These Times. Her new book is Amer­i­can Apartheid: The Native Amer­i­can Strug­gle for Self-Deter­mi­na­tion and Inclu­sion.
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