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James MacPherson
Associated Press

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota is giving tribal officials on the state's five reservations the ability to verify "set-aside" ballots, which are not counted until the voter proves his or her eligibility.

The revised system would allow tribes to quickly verify voters, rather than the previous system in which voters had up to six days to return with proof of their identity, possibly discouraging some voters from following through.

The "emergency rulemaking" order announced late Wednesday by Secretary of State Al Jaeger also codifies in state rules the ongoing process of incorporating information from tribal IDs into new electronic poll books that will be used beginning with the June 9 primary election.

The order granted by Republican Gov. Doug Burgum was announced hours after Native activists launched a get-out-the vote campaign. It builds on work that began years ago when Natives challenged the state's voter identification requirements as an unfair burden and an attempt to suppress the Native vote.

Jaeger, a Republican, said the timing was a coincidence, and that the order has been in the works for several weeks.

North Dakota doesn't have voter registration, but the state has required voters to provide ID since 2004. The state accepts a driver's license as identification or ID cards issued by the state, long-term care facilities or North Dakota's tribes. The law required that all must have a birth date and valid street address.

Voters without proper ID could may cast "set-aside" ballots until their eligibility is proven. The voter has up to six days, when election results are canvassed.

Jaeger said ballots marked by tribal members may now be verified by a tribe in conjunction with a local election board. 

Some tribal leaders said the order was encouraging.

"Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa would like to acknowledge appreciation of collabortion and communication" with the state, Tribal Chairman Jamie Azure said in a statement.

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Ira Taken Alive, vice chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, said he was "appreciative" the state is taking more steps to help ensure voting in Indian country.

"I believe it's significant and will reduce the chilling effect on our voters," Taken Alive said. 

For example, he said, even tribal members who had proper identification including a correct street address had to cast a set-aside ballot because their address did not match the state's central voter file. Many ultimately did not take steps after that to prove their eligibility, Taken Alive said.

For nearly two decades, North Dakota has maintained a database of voters, which is based on the names of people who cast ballots at their local precinct after first showing an ID. It is kept updated through any changes made to driver's license data or vital statistic records.

The so-called central voter file shows whether a person voted in each election but does not list political affiliations. Election officials say its only goal is to generate election day poll books used by precinct workers to check IDs.

Except for those in North Dakota's larger cities, the poll books were a paper record. Those poll books are now being converted into an electronic record, with nearly 1,000 new devices sent to polling places. The Legislature approved $11.2 million last year for the effort.

Jaeger said the state has been working over the past several weeks to incorporate data from the tribes into the new poll books. The order puts the process permanently into state rules, he said.

A federal appeals court last year ruled that the state's voter identification requirements are constitutional, siding with state officials who argued that not requiring street addresses could lead to voter fraud and people voting in the wrong district.

Natives argue that such addresses are not always evident on reservations, that many tribal members don't know their address, don't have a provable one because they're homeless or stay with friends or relatives, or can't afford to get an updated ID with a street address.

Taken Alive said there are still problems with correct mapping of residential street addresses but efforts are being done to verify them. He said all street addresses at Standing Rock should be completed by the end of the year.

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