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Tribe deprived of rights

DEVILS LAKE, N.D. – Tribal citizens are no stranger to having their rights trampled on. Now, members of the Spirit Lake Reservation say their right to vote is also being taken away – to the alarm of some state and federal policymakers.

The Benson County Board of Commissioners, which oversees the county that includes reservation lands, decided this election season to close three polling places in the tribe’s three-precinct vicinity.

Commissioners rationalized their decision, saying there is a high cost to operating the polling places, including training and paying staff.

In response, tribal leaders offered to provide funds to recruit and train workers, and said the county could use facilities that would be rent-free.

The commission refused the tribe’s offer, saying that costs would still be too high, and that mailed ballots would be cheaper.

Many tribal members would therefore have to travel longer distances to cast a vote in person, as only one polling location would be available in the county. Almost half of the total votes cast in the county in the 2008 presidential election were cast by Native American citizens.

In early October, the tribe filed suit against the board’s decision.

Benson County State Attorney Jim Wang said in a local radio interview that the lawsuit would have to be resolved within three weeks. At the time of his interview, Election Day was three weeks away.

“Whether this is intentional discrimination or not, the bottom line is that closing polling locations located within the Spirit Lake Nation will disenfranchise American Indian voters on the reservation, and this injustice cannot stand,” said Myra Pearson, Spirit Lake Nation chairperson.

Tribal officials have noted that the county has previously tried to hamper Indian voter participation, pointing to statistics from the 2000 election.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., had asked that the county keep the polls open, and he now feels disenfranchisement is possible.

As a result of his concern, Dorgan has asked U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon to review the decision. His office noted that all other Indian reservations in North Dakota will have polling locations during Election Day.

“I think this decision by Benson County officials will disenfranchise American Indians,” Dorgan said in a statement. “I want the U.S. attorney to review with the Justice Department the decision and determine whether there are actions that can be taken to compel the county to have a polling place on the reservation where people can cast their votes.

“In addition, there are other areas of the state where people will find fewer opportunities to cast their votes with fewer polling places. I believe the state should reverse course on these election law changes and find ways to make it easier to vote rather than harder to vote.”

Some state officials are also concerned, with the chairman of the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party urging the Benson County Commission to open an Election Day polling place in Fort Totten, N.D., to make voting easier for residents of the Spirit Lake Reservation.