Native Americans overcome North Dakota’s restrictive voter ID laws, turn out in record numbers

Danielle McLean

Danielle McLean Investigative Reporter, Think Progress

In a unified effort to rebuke North Dakota’s restrictive voter ID laws and defend their right to vote, the state’s Native American population showed up to the polls in record numbers on Tuesday.

Voting advocacy groups and tribal leaders worked overtime, down the wire, and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to get Native voters the tribal IDs needed to successfully cast a ballot — despite a controversial and restrictive state ID law that made it more difficult for them to vote.

Judith LeBlanc, a Caddo Tribe member and director of Native Organizers Alliance, helped organize an aggressive get-out-the-vote campaign in Standing Rock. She and other activists knocked on doors in the blistering cold throughout the reservation in the two weeks leading up to Election Day and on Tuesday, bused voters to the polls.

People on Standing Rock “believed they had the right to vote and they want to make their right count,” LeBlanc told ThinkProgress. They “exercised their sovereign, civil, and inherent right to vote in this historic election.”

After Native Americans helped Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) win her narrow election upset in 2012, the North Dakota Republican legislature passed a law requiring voters present IDs with a residential mailing address when voting. That law stripped many Native Americans’ of their ability to vote because many tribal members do not have a formal home address on reservations and instead rely on P.O. boxes.

Tribes scrambled to print out new IDs with mailing addresses after the Supreme Court allowed the law to remain in effect last month. Still, as ThinkProgress reported last week, days before the election county officials in some cases were not accepting tribal IDs when the addresses on those IDs did not match the addresses in a state election database. It is unclear whether that was still an issue as of Election Day.

Heitkamp lost her re-election campaign Tuesday to Republican Rep. (now Sen.-elect) Kevin Cramer, but the suppressive law actually mobilized Native voters to turn out to the polls to send a message to state lawmakers.

According to the North Dakota Secretary of State’s website, 1,464 ballots were cast in Sioux County, where Standing Rock is located. That’s out of just 2,752 eligible voters. That beat the previous record of 1,257 ballots cast in 2016, according to the Bismarck Tribune. And almost 84 percent of Sioux County ballots were cast for Heitkamp.

Talking to a ThinkProgress reporter on Election Day, Standing Rock voters cited their dislike for President Donald Trump and the Republican party, and their will to have their voices heard and their right to vote protected.

High turnout was also recorded in Rolette County, where Turtle Mountain Nation is located, with 5,102 ballots cast, according to the Secretary of State website. According to O.J. Semans, co-executive director of the Native American voting rights group Four Directions, the number of ballots cast on the reservation was the highest in the tribe’s history. Eighty percent voted for Heitkamp.

On Election Day, an estimated 80 to 100 tribal member students marched through Turtle Mountain Nation in protest of the voter ID laws chanting, “North Dakota, you can’t do this.”

And 2,288 people cast their ballot in Benson County, where most of Spirit Lake Nation is located, surpassing the 2,068 total in the 2016 presidential election, according to the Dickinson Press newspaper.

Controversy continues after Election Day ends

Even though the polls have closed, controversy surrounding Native voter suppression lingers: At least one county official is questioning the validity of Standing Rock’s high voter turnout.

Before the polls had even closed Tuesday, Sioux County Auditor Barbara Hettich, who herself was on the ballot in her losing re-election bid, suspected “voter fraud” occurred, accusing Standing Rock tribal members of voting in two different precincts. She said she will turn over an investigation to the State Attorney’s office.

Hettich told ThinkProgress that she thinks the voter ID law is a good law and national media cares about the issue for political reasons, and not because they care about the Natives’ right to vote. She said if they did care, they would be concerned about homeless people in state who had no ID with a home address and were left unable to vote on Election Day.

“It’s very political,” Hettich told ThinkProgress. “I think the Democrats are working to make sure the Native Americans can vote because Native Americans 99 percent are Democratic voters. And they want to make sure Heidi Heitkamp defeats Kevin Cramer.”

But Semans pointed out that Hettich was overseeing an election in an area where she was on the ballot, and said she ordered a worryingly small number of ballots.

Hettich had previously tried to stop Standing Rock voters from casting an absentee ballot using a tribe-issued paper ID that included the person’s name, date of birth, and address. Hettich eventually accepted such IDs under the advisement of the North Dakota Secretary of State.

“If there was voter fraud, it was done by the auditor because she has intimidated [voters] and refused to follow the law,” Semans said.

Some barriers to voting were more intangible: Members of the three-affiliated tribes of Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara (which make up MHA Nation), had to drive 80 miles roundtrip under wind-advisory conditions just to vote, after Dunn County officials decided to close one of its polling locations, according to The county had switched to a vote-by-mail system prior to the primary elections in June, according to the website.

Poll watchers from group Election Protection were aware of six people who were unable to cast a regular ballot at the Fort Yates polling location for not having acceptable IDs because they were non-Standing Rock tribal members and could not get paper tribal IDs, which were being printed onsite. At least four of those people received set-aside ballots, according to poll watchers who spoke to ThinkProgress.

Around a dozen tribal members were given paper IDs throughout the day, according to LaDonna Allard, a member of Standing Rock Sioux who was poll watching. Early in the day, two North Dakota GOP members at the polls urged Hettich not to accept tribal-issued paper IDs at the Fort Yates polling location, although the county auditor decided to accept them, according to Nicole Donaghy, a field organizer at the organization Western Native Voice, who witnessed the event. Several other onsite poll watchers verified her account.

In total, three ND GOP poll watchers were at Fort Yates throughout the day. ND GOP’s District 3 Chair Perrie Schafer told ThinkProgress at the polls that he considered tribal-issued paper IDs as an acceptable form of ID.

“We don’t want to disenfranchise anyone,” Schafer said. “We’ve seen a couple people without IDs and turned around. That’s good… My hope is they come back with IDs.”

Ultimately, and in spite of restrictive laws that complicated the voting process for them, North Dakota’s Native Americans by and large made a point with high turnout. And community leaders are hoping turnout only goes up in future elections.

“It’s a big deal,” said Semans. “But that significance came from hundreds of thousands of dollars from the tribes to get their people to vote. There was still voter suppression going on, so we could have gotten more. But with all the crap, we are happy with what we got.”


Reposted from Think Progress

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