With a few weeks remaining until Election Day in November and in the wake of a Voter ID Law that made it increasingly difficult for Native people to vote, Native Americans, Native American groups and tribal governments are leading an effort to give Native voters greater accessibility to the ballot box.
Last week, the Supreme Court declined to overturn North Dakota's controversial voter ID law, which requires residents to show an ID with a current street address. Since many Native residents have a P.O. box, which does not qualify, groups and individuals are scrambling to get registered against mounting odds.
Many once potential voters without formal residential addresses — whose ID’s were once accepted at polling places — will no longer be allowed to vote at polling places for the general election. This decision came a month before Election Day, which was criticized by judges in the Supreme Court, specifically Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan voiced dissent.
Ginsburg argued that the Supreme Court’s order conflicted with one of the top court’s most frequently invoked doctrines on election law: not to change the rules shortly before an election.
Pima Levy of Mother Jones magazine made a key statement in a recent article regarding the race of Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp.
The Supreme Court’s order will likely make it harder for Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, considered the most vulnerable Democrat in the Senate, to retain her seat in November. Heitkamp won her seat by less than 3,000 votes in 2012 with strong backing from Native Americans, and she is the only statewide elected Democrat. North Dakota Republicans began changing voting rules to make it harder to cast a ballot months after Heitkamp’s victory six years ago. Republicans have claimed the changes to voter ID requirements are intended to stop voter fraud, even though in-person fraud is exceedingly rare.
In response to the Voter ID Law, Heitkamp issued a press release on October 10th regarding “Native Voting Rights Act to Remove Barriers to Voting in Indian Country.”
The release states the following:
Due to the rural locations of many tribes, higher poverty rates on many reservations, and transportation barriers, American Indian voters face unique challenges in casting their ballots. According to the National Congress of American Indians, turnout among American Indian and Alaska Native voters in the 2012 election was a full 17 percent lower than white voters. Native Americans only fully gained the right to vote in 1957.
“Native communities face unique challenges in our electoral process, and their voices deserve to be heard,” Heitkamp said in the release. “After the Supreme Court declined to hear an emergency appeal based on the confusion created by reverting back to North Dakota’s burdensome voter ID law that makes it harder for Native Americans to vote, our bill is especially needed to prevent Native voters from being disenfranchised. Voting should be an accessible, simple, and fair process for every American, but that has not been the case everywhere in Indian Country.”
Senator Heitkamp, Democrat - North Dakota, at a tribal school in North Dakota. Courtesy Hetkamp press office
“Given the number of Native Americans who have served, fought, and died for this country, it is appalling that some people would still try and erect barriers to suppress their ability to vote. Native Americans served in the military before they were even allowed to vote, and they continue to serve at the highest rate of any population in this country. We need to put an end to every form of voter discrimination, and our bill would be an important starting point to bring equal access and equal rights to voters in Indian Country and Native Americans around the country.”
Republicans argue that the voter ID requirement is necessary to connect voters with the correct ballot. They also say the law prevents non-state residents from signing up for a North Dakota P.O. box in order to vote fraudulently.
What are the solutions?
According to the ND state government as written in a statement with a regarding line tilted “Helping Native Americans to be able to vote in North Dakota Elections,” residents without a street ID should contact their county's 911 coordinator to sign up for a free street address and request a letter confirming that address.
In response, other organizations are jumping to the cause.
Native Vote ND
The Facebook page of Native Vote ND has been sharing the official instructions.
“If you encounter anyone who says to you that they do not have a residential street address to provide to either the DOT or the tribal government to obtain an ID, please encourage them to reach out to the 911 Coordinator in the county in which their residence exists to start the simple process to have the address assigned,” says the post in part.
Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians - Free Tribal ID Days
Jamie Azure, the tribal chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, who calls the ruling “horrible timing” tells of the tribe’s current ‘Free Tribal ID Days, in which residents can get an updated tribal ID with a residential address at no charge.
Standing Rock Sioux Tribe
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is informing their tribal members to get in touch if they need help obtaining a residential address. The tribe will also be offering drivers to take residents to the ballot boxes on Election Day.
Tribal Voting Letter with name, birthdate and address available at ND Government Offices
According to the Bismarck Tribune, "Bret Healy, a consultant for Four Directions, which is led by members of South Dakota's Rosebud Sioux Tribe, said the organization believes it has a common-sense solution.
"The group is working with tribal leaders in North Dakota to have a tribal government official available at every polling place on reservations to issue a tribal voting letter that includes the eligible voter's name, date of birth and residential address."
The Tribune told tribal leaders that such letters would be accepted as proof of residency.
Though many obstacles have seemingly stepped into the way of Native American voters, Jamie Azure, the tribal chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians told NPR, the new ND Voter law might have an unintended effect in regards to Native tribes.
"It's already unified the tribes in North Dakota. Now we're working together … We are members of this U.S. government, and we are not going to let you keep us down. We're going to figure out a way to to go over the barriers that are put in front of us. ... And this unified movement moving forward with the tribes? That's going to jump our percentages up, with that Native vote."
Heitkamp voter legislation
In a statement sent to ICT, Senator Heitkamp calls the move to complicate the voting process, specifically Native voters, a direct form of disenfranchisement.
"The voter disenfranchisement our Native communities are facing is shameful, and it's pretty clearly a result of their high turnout and support for my campaign in 2012. Voting is one of our most sacred rights in this country and to play political games with North Dakotans' right to vote is as unacceptable as it is dangerous. My goal is to touch the hand of every Native voter and to make sure they have the resources they need to be heard at the polls. That's why our campaign is implementing perhaps the most expansive, robust voter education and outreach program across tribal reservations in any Senate race in the country -- and it's how we're going to stand up against this clear effort to silence Native voters, by making sure they're heard loud and clear."
As described in the news release by Senator Heidi Heitkamp’s office the Senator has introduced a version of the Native Voting Rights Act - an act presented by Heitkamp in every Congress since arriving in the U.S. Senate.
Specifically, the bill would:
- Establish a first-of-its kind Native American Voting Rights Task Force. This new program will provide funds to tribal and state consortiums for purposes of boosting Native voter registration, education and election participation in tribal communities.
- Provide equal access to the voter registration and polling sites. The bill includes provisions to increase Native American and Alaska Native access at each stage of the voting process, from voter registration to access to the physical places and mechanisms for voting.
- Address the devastating effects of Shelby County v. Holder by restoring tribal “preclearance.” The bill restores preclearance review for a specific subset of state actions that have been used to restrict access to the polls on Native lands.
- Afford equal treatment for tribal IDs. The bill directs voting precincts to treat tribal ID cards like state and local ID cards for purposes of voting.
- Require adequate language assistance. Directs states to consult with the Tribes on the appropriate method for furnishing instructions, assistance, or other information related to registration and voting.
- Increase access to federal election observers. Provides tribal leaders a direct pathway to request Federal elections observers.
- Require the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to conduct annual voting consultation with Indian Tribes. Given the persistent, threats to the right to vote for Native American and Alaska Native citizens, the bill directs DOJ to consult annually with tribal organizations.
Earlier this year, Heitkamp urged the DOJ to protect the voting rights of Native Americans by continuing its work to ensure compliance with the Voting Rights Act in all states and tribal communities, especially where underserved populations face barriers to voting. Click here to view her letter.
Follow Indian Country Today’s associate editor and senior correspondent, Vincent Schilling (Akwesasne Mohawk) on Twitter -@VinceSchilling
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