Tribes unite to combat new North Dakota voter ID law

After an eleventh-hour decision that could disqualify many Native American voters, tribal governments find their own solutions.


Last week, in the Bureau of Indian Affairs enrollment office on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, a squat printer noisily churned out a new ID for Howard Eagleman, an enrolled tribal member with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. It wasn’t all that different from Eagleman’s last ID. But now, it listed a residential address instead of a P.O. box.

Under a recently upheld North Dakota law, Eagleman could not vote in the Nov. 6 midterms if his ID lacked that information. “It’s a hassle, but you do it,” Eagleman said, sliding the new card into his wallet. “They didn’t ask for it last time.”

Before casting their ballots, many more residents of Standing Rock and the four other tribal nations in North Dakota will have to follow Eagleman’s lead. On Oct. 9, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the state’s long-embattled voter ID law requiring proof of a residential address. This is a change from the June primaries, when a federal district court ordered the state to accept the P.O. box numbers that many tribal members use.

A bulletin board at the Bureau of Indian Affairs enrollment office in Fort Yates, North Dakota, instructs voters the necessary protocol to make sure they‘re eligible to vote under current regulations.
Elena Saavedra Buckley/High Country News

According to the Native American Rights Fund, the law could disenfranchise the thousands of tribal members who lack street addresses. With a limited number of county officials available to assign new addresses and issue documents before Election Day, the tribes are scrambling to do it themselves. In a statement, they promised to act “united against North Dakota’s suppressive voter ID law.” 

Standing Rock Chairman Mike Faith called the Supreme Court ruling “depressing,” but not surprising. “Each barrier they put up, we’re getting over them and staying positive,” he said in his office in Fort Yates. The tribes will spend the next two weeks printing new IDs for free. (At the Turtle Mountain Reservation, the machines overheated and started melting the cards.) They’ll also issue temporary documents showing proof of address, using an addressing system organized by the South Dakota-based advocacy group Four Directions. 

In past elections, voters from the Standing Rock, Fort Berthold, Spirit Lake, Lake Traverse and Turtle Mountain Indian reservations helped create consistent blue patches in North Dakota’s otherwise crimson map. In 2012, Democrat Heidi Heitkamp won a U.S. Senate race by only 3,000 ballots, a margin often attributed to Native American support. She is up for re-election, but polls show her trailing Republican U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer.   

Secretary of State Al Jaeger denies any intent to disenfranchise Native American voters. He explained that the law merely ends certain voting practices — like letting voters sign affidavits as proof of residence — that might lead to untraceable ballots. Supporters claim the law is a necessary protection against voter fraud, though there’s no evidence of widespread fraud in the state. 

“There was no point to target anybody,” he said. “If anything, this would probably affect more people from the oil fields voting than on reservations.”

In the coming weeks, groups at Standing Rock will print more IDs, knock on doors and organize phone banks. Right now, the election results are not on Chairman Faith’s mind. “Whoever wins, wins,” he said. “But we also have a right to vote for whoever we want, and we can’t be challenged every time.”

Elena Saavedra Buckley is an editorial intern at High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. 

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