North Dakota Tribal Leaders Demand Voting Rights

Representatives of four tribal nations in North Dakota spoke to members of Congress on Tuesday, April 16 about how to protect Native American voting rights. The hearing was hosted by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in Fort Yates, North Dakota. Tribal leaders focused on a state voter identification law that forces them to show identification with a street address. According to the Associated Press (AP), North Dakota’s voter ID requirements have prompted two federal lawsuits by tribes, who claim that the law discriminates against Native Americans.

“There continues to be barriers — interpersonal and systematic — at our polling locations in our tribal communities and for our Native voters across the state,” activist Prairie Rose Seminole, a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation in northwestern North Dakota (also known as the Three Affiliated Tribes), said during the hearing.

Tribal leaders told the elections subcommittee of the Committee on House Administration that many Native Americans use post office boxes as their mailing addresses, and have tribal IDs that do not list street addresses. “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, according to the Billings Gazette.

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the Spirit Lake Tribe are suing North Dakota over its voter identification law. State officials have denied suppressing Native votes and in October 2018, the US Supreme Court allowed the state to keep the law, the AP reported.

In response, tribes pushed to help tribal members get proper ID before November’s midterm election. The tribes spent a combined $14,000 to help members obtain new IDs at no charge. Representative Rodney Davis (R-Ill.), the ranking Republican member of the Committee on House Administration, noted that the reservations had historic number of tribal members show up at the polls than before the law went into effect. However, tribal leaders said that the higher voter turnouts would not have occurred if it were not for a “collective effort.” North Dakota’s voter ID law captured national attention in the lead-up to the 2018 midterm elections. Former US Senator Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat up for reelection, was first elected to the Senate after winning by less than 3,000 votes in 2012. According to the Grand Forks Herald, Walker noted that the victory was largely due to the Native vote.

Davis said that Heitkamp lost her election bid to Republican Representative Kevin Cramer despite high Native American voter turnout. “There are voter suppression issues going on throughout Indian Country that aren’t nearly getting the attention or resources that were poured into North Dakota because it just so happened that Senator Heitkamp was running for re-election, and the Senate balance of power elevated this issue to the national stage,” Native American Rights Fund attorney Jacqueline De León said.

Subcommittee members also heard about redistricting, which tribal leaders claimed reduced representation and made it harder for Native Americans to vote. Roger White Owl, CEO for the Three Affiliated Tribes, noted that polling places closed on the Fort Berthold Reservation and led to tribal members having to drive far distances in order to vote.

Native Americans did not gain the right to vote in the United States until 1924 when they were finally recognized as American citizens. However, some states barred Native Americans from voting until 1957.

In March, Washington State Governor Jay Inslee signed the Native American Voting Rights Act, which will facilitate ballot registration for Native people even if their homes on reservations do not have regular street addresses or numbers.

About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has published in various venues, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Asia and Australia.