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James MacPherson
Associated Press

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Native American activists in North Dakota are launching a voter awareness and turnout drive just weeks before the state's presidential preference caucuses.

It's an effort to build on work begun years ago when American Indians challenged the state's voter identification requirements as an unfair burden and an attempt to suppress the Native vote, said Nicole Donaghy, executive director of North Dakota Native Vote.

The privately funded nonprofit will focus on the state's five American Indian reservations and some urban areas of North Dakota, and will consider issues that affect tribal communities, she said.

"Our heart is on the reservations," said Donaghy, who is from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation that straddles the North Dakota-South Dakota border. 

Advocacy groups credited an intense effort in 2018 to ensure a strong American Indian vote by offering free qualifying IDs and rides to the polls, though it wasn't enough to influence a key U.S. Senate race. Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, who won her seat six years ago with the help of the Native vote, was beaten by Republican U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer.

Scott Davis, executive director of the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission and a member of Republican Gov. Doug Burgum's staff, said the state helped by visiting tribal leaders and reservations to make people aware of voting requirements. North Dakota Democrats targeted American Indian communities in a get-out-the-vote campaign last year that included helping tribal members satisfy new proof-of-identity requirements needed to cast a ballot, including having a street address.

American Indians tend to vote for Democrats and it's common for the party to visit reservations to encourage tribal members to vote.

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Changes to North Dakota's voter ID laws came just months after Heitkamp's win in 2012 by fewer than 3,000 votes with the help of Native Americans, who make up about 5 percent of North Dakota's population.

The Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa sued the state in 2016 over the ID requirements that many tribal members believed were aimed at suppressing their vote. The Republican-controlled Legislature said that had nothing to do with the change.

North Dakota law has always required street address identification, but before 2013 voters who didn't have one could sign an affidavit attesting to their eligibility. Now they must show ID with their residential address. American Indians 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.

A federal appeals court last year ruled that the 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.

Groups that monitored tribal voting sites estimate the number of voters who experienced identification problems last year totaled only in the dozens due to efforts to ensure a strong Native American turnout.

There are no high-stakes races in the offing yet this year but it is no less important to get out the Native American vote, said Wes Davis, a member of North Dakota Native Vote.

Davis said the goal is to inspire tribal members, from youth to elders, to vote, and to show them how and where.

"We want to make them visible when the whole system has made them invisible," said Davis, a member of Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa.

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