Tribal elder Dorothy Herman voted in North Dakota for more than 40 years. Until 2014, that is, when a new state law meant she couldn’t obtain acceptable identification for that election, no matter how hard she tried. On January 20 of this year, she and six more Native voters who were disenfranchised in 2014 filed a federal lawsuit challenging the state’s recently enacted limitations on the types of documents that can be used to obtain a ballot.
The list of documents does include tribal ID, along with driver’s licenses, non-driver IDs and long-term-care certificates. However, the item must show a residential address, and some tribal cards do not. In certain cases, tribes can’t include the information because tribal members’ residences don’t have the kind of street numbers used in off-reservation communities. The election safety net of past years is also gone; voters no longer have such options as signing an affidavit attesting to their identity.
The Native plaintiffs say the restrictions, passed by the North Dakota legislature in 2013 and tightened further in 2015, disproportionately burden and even disenfranchise Native American voters who, among other issues, live farther from offices where they can obtain alternative identification and are less likely to have the vehicle needed to get there. For example, Standing Rock residents drive as many as 120 miles round trip to the nearest office issuing driver’s licenses. Natives are also poorer and more likely to find the fees and transportation costs prohibitive. By falling more heavily on Native people, says the lawsuit, these burdens violate the Voting Rights Act and the United States and North Dakota constitutions.
North Dakota Secretary of State Al Jaeger, who is named as defendant in the suit because of his post as head elections official, said he could not comment at this time: “We have not had an opportunity to review [the lawsuit] and will do so with the Attorney General, who is our legal counsel.” Jaeger has publicly supported the restrictions, saying they guarantee that only qualified voters cast a ballot.
A Voter’s Odyssey
In 2014, Herman, a retired teacher from the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, expected to vote as usual. Leading up to Election Day, she had an expired state ID with a residential address and a tribal ID without an address. She decided to renew her state document.
Herman made the trip to the appropriate state office during its advertised open hours. It was closed. She tried again on another day, only to learn that her expired state ID was not enough to obtain an updated one. She was told to return—for a third time—and bring a birth certificate.
At some point, Herman saw a state advertisement about the new regulations and understood that her tribal card would work. Reassured, she brought it to the polls on Election Day but was turned away because it lacked an address. Since Turtle Mountain cards now do include addresses, she went to the tribal office that issued identification to get a new one. It was closed. Herman was disenfranchised. She eventually made that third trip to the state office and paid to obtain a new state document.
Lawsuit plaintiff Richard Brakebill, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, was also turned away from the polls in 2014. He was distressed, he said, explaining, “As a veteran who served this country, I know how important it is to vote.”
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the plaintiffs by attorneys from the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), Morgan, Lewis & Bockius and Dickson Law Office. NARF recently negotiated a landmark voting-rights agreement in Alaska that requires the state to provide federally mandated language assistance for voters who speak Alaska Native languages.
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Plaintiff and veteran Elvis Norquay, also from Turtle Mountain, had this to say about voting: “It is my right.”