Locating a house is not easy on the isolated and impoverished Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation in northern North Dakota, and that is making it more difficult for residents and their counterparts on other reservations in the state to vote this election.
To cast a ballot, they need identification with a provable street address — something that is not important to the 19,000 people who live on the remote 186km2 block of land where most streets have no signs. In their culture, they have never needed them.
Tribal activist Wes Davis, 37, an official at the local community college and a lifelong reservation resident, describes where he lives this way — to the west of a gas station on the east side of town, behind the high school and across the road from another store.
“This is literally how we explain where we live here on the reservation, because that’s the way it’s been our whole lives,” Davis said. “People will understand because whenever we think of physical addresses, we think of infrastructure, or we think of pastures, or we think of families who live in a spot and we live alongside of them, those types of things. We don’t think of streets and avenues.”
The stricter voter identification document (ID) rules are taking effect for the first time after a US Supreme Court ruling earlier this month allowed the state to require street addresses, as opposed to other addresses such as post office boxes.
Now, tribes are scrambling to make sure everyone on the reservation can vote in the November election, which includes a race that could help determine control of the US Senate.
The skirmish over voter access is not limited to North Dakota. Voters in at least eight states face more stringent laws than in the last federal election, the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice said.
American Indians in North Dakota face a unique situation because the state is the only one in the nation without voter registration, meaning they have never needed a street address to vote.
Before 2013, people without proper identification were allowed to vote by signing an affidavit attesting to their eligibility.
The Republican-controlled Legislature ended that just months after Democrat Heidi Heitkamp won a US Senate seat in 2012 by fewer than 3,000 votes, with strong support from American Indians, who tend to vote for the Democratic Party.
Republicans say that Heitkamp’s victory had nothing to do with the legislation, and they are simply trying to guard against voter fraud that North Dakota Secretary of State Al Jaeger, himself a Republican, said “should be a concern for every voter.”
State officials note that everyone has a street address via the statewide 911 system and that those addresses are easily obtainable by calling a 911 coordinator in any of North Dakota’s 53 counties.
People on reservations say designated 911 addresses are relatively new and unknown to many, and that just getting an updated ID with an address can be problematic. Many tribal members are homeless, lack transportation, do not have necessary documents or simply cannot afford one.
“Fifteen dollars for an ID could mean the difference between a single mother buying milk for her children for three days or getting an ID to go vote,” Turtle Mountain chairman Jamie Azure said.
The Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa challenged the voter ID law in 2016. A district judge ruled that a post office box should be fine, but was overruled by the Eighth US Circuit Court of Appeals. Judges there accepted the state’s argument that it could lead to people voting in the wrong districts and to fraud.
With high interest in the US Senate race between Heitkamp and her Republican challenger, US Representative Kevin Cramer, tribes and advocacy groups are now racing.
Tribes are handing out free IDs in advance of the election and at polling sites on election day.
On Turtle Mountain, about 100 people are coming in for free IDs each day, said Kandace Parisien, director of the tribe’s motor vehicle department, which is issuing them.
The voter ID issue has galvanized the tribes, Azure said.
“It’s unifying the people,” he said. “It’s getting people interested, it’s getting people looking at the issues, looking at the candidates.”
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