A federal judge denied a motion on Thursday seeking relief from North Dakota’s voter identification law for Native American voters, but said the allegations in a lawsuit from the Spirit Lake Tribe give him “great cause for concern.”
U.S. District Court Judge Daniel Hovland ruled that he was denying the emergency motion because it would cause more confusion and chaos less than a week before the election.
“The federal courts are unanimous in their judgment that it is highly important to preserve the status quo when elections are fast approaching,” Hovland wrote.
The Spirit Lake Tribe and individual Native American voters filed a lawsuit on Tuesday against North Dakota Secretary of State Al Jaeger alleging that eligible voters have been and will continue to be denied the right to vote under the state’s stricter voter identification law.
A motion filed Wednesday asked for an emergency temporary restraining order to prevent the law from taking effect for counties that include reservations for Native American voters who fall into certain categories.
North Dakota’s stricter voter identification law, which is taking effect for the first time this election, requires voters to present identification with a current residential address. But many homes on reservations are not assigned street addresses and tribal members use post office boxes as their addresses.
The lawsuit filed this week calls the state’s process of assigning and verifying voters’ addresses “deeply flawed” and raises examples of tribal members who have been denied absentee ballots or lack the proper documentation to vote.
Hovland wrote in his two-page ruling that the “litany of problems identified in this new lawsuit were clearly predictable and certain to occur.”
However, he added that “a further injunction on the eve of the election will create as much confusion as it will alleviate.”
A previous ruling from Hovland in a 2016 lawsuit brought by members of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa prevented North Dakota from mandating a current residential street address.
In an April order, Hovland wrote that requiring a current residential address is a clear “legal obstacle” to voting and “completely disenfranchises” anyone who does not have a current street address, which includes many people living on Native American reservations.
However, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals granted a stay on that decision on Sept. 24 while an appeal is pending. That decision was appealed to the Supreme Court, which rejected the emergency appeal on Oct. 9.
Jaeger said he and his staff are continuing to prepare for Tuesday’s election as they have since the ruling from the Eighth Circuit that was upheld by the Supreme Court. The state has not filed a response to the lawsuit.
Jacqueline De Leon, attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, said the plaintiffs were considering their options after receiving Hovland’s ruling.
“We’re disappointed with the outcome and imminent disenfranchisement of tribal members, but we’ll continue to fight this fight,” De Leon said.
(Reach Amy Dalrymple at 701-250-8267 or Amy.Dalrymple@bismarcktribune.com)