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.
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 investigative journalist who writes on human rights and culture. Her book American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle for Self-Determination and Inclusion is based on more than 20 years of reporting in Indigenous communities. She was an editor at major consumer magazines for more than two decades.