N.D. In­di­ans fight voter ID lim­its

Ac­tivists hatch plan af­ter high court rul­ing leaves state law in place

The Washington Post - - NEWS - BY GABRIEL POGRUND AND FELI­CIA SONMEZ gabriel.pogrund@wash­post.com feli­cia.sonmez@wash­post.com

Na­tive Amer­i­can vot­ing rights ac­tivists in North Dakota have launched an au­da­cious plan aimed at push­ing back against a Supreme Court rul­ing that threat­ens the re­elec­tion of Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) — and that could de­cide the fate of the Se­nate in the process.

The high court de­cided 6 to 2 Tues­day to leave in place a state law that re­quires res­i­dents to pro­vide an ID dis­play­ing a res­i­den­tial address rather than a P.O. box num­ber to vote. Repub­li­can law­mak­ers who pushed for the mea­sure say the rule is de­signed to com­bat voter fraud.

But tribal of­fi­cials and Democrats say it ap­pears aimed at mak­ing it harder for thou­sands of Na­tive Amer­i­cans to vote, par­tic­u­larly those who live on reser­va­tions with­out con­ven­tional street names. The law specif­i­cally bans the use of P.O. boxes as an al­ter­na­tive form of address, ren­der­ing many tribal ID cards in­valid.

Na­tive Amer­i­can ac­tivists have re­sponded with plans to cre­ate ad­dresses on the spot for those who need them on Elec­tion Day.

Tribal of­fi­cials will stand out­side polling sta­tions on Nov. 6 with lap­tops and ac­cess to ru­ral ad­dress­ing soft­ware and a shared data­base of voter names. North Dakota is the only state that does not re­quire voter reg­is­tra­tion, mean­ing el­i­gi­ble vot­ers can gen­er­ally show up at the polls and cast a bal­lot so long as they have proper iden­ti­fi­ca­tion.

O. J. Se­mans, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Four Direc­tions, a na­tional Na­tive Amer­i­can vot­ing rights group, said the strat­egy was “legally wa­ter­tight” and nec­es­sary to counter the “dev­as­tat­ing” court rul­ing.

“Even if it doesn’t change the over­all re­sult, it’s about fight­ing back,” Se­mans said. “We have to fight back.”

In one of the coun­try’s least­pop­u­lous states — and where Heitkamp, one of the Se­nate’s most en­dan­gered Demo­cratic in­cum­bents, eked out a vic­tory of fewer than 3,000 votes in 2012 — the Supreme Court rul­ing could prove de­ci­sive.

Na­tive Amer­i­cans were widely cred­ited with de­liv­er­ing Heitkamp’s last win, which set in mo­tion a six-year le­gal war of at­tri­tion pit­ting the GOP-run state­house in Bismarck against tribal lead­ers and vot­ing rights groups. Cen­sus Bureau records show 46,000 Na­tive Amer­i­cans live in North Dakota, in­clud­ing 20,000 on tribal re­serves. Ac­cord­ing to court fil­ings, at least 5,000 of those on reser­va­tions do not have con­ven­tional ad­dresses.

North Dakota has be­come a high pri­or­ity for Repub­li­cans as they seek to re­tain their slim ma­jor­ity in the Se­nate. In tele­vi­sion in­ter­views this week, Pres­i­dent Trump, who won the state by 36 per­cent­age points in 2016, touted polls show­ing Rep. Kevin Cramer (R) lead­ing Heitkamp by dou­ble dig­its. Repub­li­cans have made Heitkamp’s vote against the con­fir­ma­tion of Supreme Court Jus­tice Brett M. Ka­vanaugh a cen­ter­piece of their ef­fort as the cam­paign en­ters its fi­nal straight.

Na­tive Amer­i­can vot­ing right groups de­scribed this week’s Supreme Court rul­ing, in which Ka­vanaugh did not par­tic­i­pate, as the lat­est ploy to de­press al­ready­low turnout among tribes.

“It is a par­ti­san and in­ten­tional ef­fort at tar­get­ing na­tive vot­ers,” said Matt Camp­bell, at­tor­ney at the Na­tive Amer­i­can Rights Fund, who rep­re­sented a group of mil­i­tary vet­er­ans as plain­tiffs in the case. He cited of­fi­cial fig­ures in­di­cat­ing that in 2012 there were just nine cases of po­ten­tial voter fraud out of 325,862 votes cast. “Voter fraud is not a prob­lem,” he said.

Al Jaeger, North Dakota’s sec­re­tary of state, did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment. How­ever, in a re­ply to Four Direc­tions ob­tained by The Washington Post, Jaeger warned that the ac­tivists’ plan could cause con­fu­sion among vot­ers. He cited the ex­am­ple of the Tur­tle Moun­tain Band of the Chippewa Tribe, which he said was al­ready bound by an agree­ment del­e­gat­ing author­ity for erect­ing road signs and as­sign­ing street ad­dresses to Ro­lette County.

In a 2017 let­ter to Trump’s now-de­funct Com­mis­sion on Elec­tion In­tegrity, Jaeger also laid out his views on the need for stricter voter ID re­quire­ments.

“While some in­di­vid­u­als ar­gue that there is no ev­i­dence of wide­spread voter fraud, there are oth­ers who ar­gue the ex­act op­po­site,” Jaeger wrote. “Re­gard­less, the truth is that un­der the cur­rent forms of elec­tion ad­min­is­tra­tion, it is not pos­si­ble to es­tab­lish whether wide­spread voter fraud does or does not ex­ist be­cause it is dif­fi­cult to de­ter­mine ei­ther way when proof is not re­quired of vot­ers when reg­is­ter­ing or be­fore vot­ing.”

In a dis­sent­ing opin­ion in the Supreme Court case, Jus­tice Ruth Bader Gins­burg warned that the North Dakota ID law pre­sented a “se­vere” risk of “grand-scale voter con­fu­sion.” Her opin­ion noted dif­fer­ent ID rules were in place dur­ing the state’s pri­mary elec­tion this spring, mean­ing some vot­ers might show up at the polls with ID that falls short or sim­ply stay at home in Novem­ber.

“Rea­son­able vot­ers may well as­sume that the IDs al­low­ing them to vote in the pri­mary elec­tion would re­main valid in the gen­eral elec­tion,” Gins­burg wrote.

Cramer has not pub­licly re­sponded to the Supreme Court rul­ing, and his cam­paign did not re­ply to a re­quest for com­ment from The Washington Post.

Ju­lia Krieger, com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor for the Heitkamp cam­paign, de­clined to com­ment on the plans by Na­tive Amer­i­can ac­tivists but de­scribed the voter ID law as a par­ti­san move aimed at low­er­ing turnout among Heitkamp’s vot­ers.

“Passed by North Dakota’s Repub­li­can-ma­jor­ity leg­is­la­ture al­most im­me­di­ately fol­low­ing Heidi’s vic­tory in 2012, it’s no secret that North Dakota’s hy­per­par­ti­san voter ID laws tar­get stu­dent and Na­tive com­mu­ni­ties be­cause they pre­fer Heidi in the U.S. Se­nate,” Krieger said.

While North Dakota has voted Repub­li­can in 19 out of the past 20 pres­i­den­tial races, the state was long rep­re­sented by two Demo­cratic sen­a­tors, Byron Dor­gan and Kent Con­rad. Heitkamp ran in 2012 af­ter her men­tor, Con­rad, en­cour­aged her; she has re­mained pop­u­lar in part by dis­tanc­ing her­self from na­tional Democrats, al­though the state has been trend­ing to the right in re­cent years.

The first flash point in the le­gal bat­tle over voter ID laws came in 2013 in the wake of Heitkamp’s elec­tion, when the state leg­is­la­ture ar­gued the sys­tem in place at the time fa­cil­i­tated voter fraud. Leg­is­la­tors banned al­ter­na­tives for those with­out ID, in­clud­ing af­fi­davits signed un­der penalty of per­jury or tribal of­fi­cials tes­ti­fy­ing that a voter was a lo­cal res­i­dent. They then re­moved col­lege and mil­i­tary cards from the list of ac­cept­able doc­u­ments and passed an­other law re­quir­ing that a per­son’s ID con­tain a cur­rent res­i­den­tial address.

Jim Sil­rum, North Dakota’s deputy sec­re­tary of state, a pro­po­nent of the ef­forts to tighten voter rules, said at the time the mea­sure was drafted af­ter “con­cerned cit­i­zens” and state rep­re­sen­ta­tives raised fears about the pos­si­bil­ity of voter fraud.

Ac­tivists say a suc­ces­sion of laws put in place since 2012 have dis­en­fran­chised thou­sands of tribal vot­ers, es­pe­cially those who lived on reser­va­tions or in wilder­ness ar­eas. Dur­ing the 2014 midterms in Ro­lette County, home to the Tur­tle Moun­tain tribal reser­va­tion, turnout plunged from 45 per­cent to 33 per­cent, while neigh­bor­ing non­tribal ar­eas saw no com­pa­ra­ble de­cline.

“We’ve been deal­ing with sup­pres­sion of our po­lit­i­cal rights and voice for decades,” said Wizipan Lit­tle Elk, who led Barack Obama’s Na­tive Amer­i­can out­reach ef­fort dur­ing the 2008 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. “This is just one more ex­am­ple.”


The Supreme Court rul­ing to keep in place a voter ID law is a threat to the re­elec­tion of Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), who ini­tially won her seat by fewer than 3,000 votes in 2012.

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