North Dakota tribal leaders urged members of Congress Tuesday (Apr. 16) to protect Native American voting rights, highlighting a state voter identification law they said creates unequal access to the ballot box.
Representatives from four of North Dakota’s tribal nations raised concerns to a U.S. House subcommittee about the state’s law requiring voters to present an identification with a street address.
Many addresses on rural reservations are post office boxes and street addresses aren’t assigned, tribal leaders said during a field hearing of the Committee on House Administration Elections Subcommittee.
“Simply put, it is a massive hurdle for many on Standing Rock reservation to figure out their actual residential address,” said Charles Walker, judicial committee chairman for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
The hearing held at Standing Rock was one of several around the country the subcommittee is holding to gather evidence and testimony of voter suppression that will be used to inform future legislation.
“What I’ve heard here today seems to suggest to me that there is a deliberate effort in both Dakotas to suppress the vote,” said Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C.
But the ranking Republican member of the subcommittee, Rep. Rodney Davis, of Illinois, emphasized that North Dakota reservations had historic voter turnout last November with a higher percentage of voters than before the law was enacted.
“It looked like a lot of the outreach was successful in getting people to the polls,” said Davis, who met with North Dakota’s secretary of state on Monday.
Tribal representatives said the strong turnout was the result of tribes spending thousands of dollars to help tribal members obtain new IDs at no charge, community organizers who helped tribes mobilize and national media attention that spurred donations.
“Those higher turnouts wouldn’t have happened if there wasn’t a collective effort,” Walker said.
The Spirit Lake Tribe and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe are challenging North Dakota’s voter identification law in federal court. North Dakota Secretary of State Al Jaeger has maintained previously that the voter ID law requirements are aimed at preventing voter fraud.
Roger White Owl, CEO for the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, called the voter ID law “unfair” and raised concerns about polling places that closed on the Fort Berthold Reservation, causing some tribal members to drive great distances to vote.
White Owl said the federal government, not states, should work with tribes to develop voting rules that work on reservations.
“We need ID requirements that work for us, and we need enough polling places so that our votes can be counted,” White Owl said.
OJ Semans Sr., co-executive director for Four Directions, a Native American voting rights advocacy group, said tribal members living on reservations should have the same access to early voting opportunities as other voters in the state.
Semans urged the subcommittee to direct funding from the Help America Vote Act to Indian Country to ensure equal access to voting. He suggested establishing satellite voting locations on reservations to increase voter access.
North Dakota state Rep. Ruth Buffalo, D-Fargo, said Native Americans represent 1.4 percent of the state Legislature but 5.5 percent of the state’s population. She said legislative districts are gerrymandered to dilute the Native American vote and reduce representation.
North Dakota Indian Affairs Commissioner Scott Davis attended the hearing. During a break, Davis said his office is working with the governor’s office, the secretary of state, tribes and local county auditors to encourage Native American voter participation.
Reprinted with the permission of The Bismarck Tribune.