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Federal judge rejects North Dakota's request to dismiss tribal lawsuit over voter ID rules

Federal judge rejects North Dakota's request to dismiss tribal lawsuit over voter ID rules

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A federal judge on Monday rejected a request by the state of North Dakota to dismiss a tribal lawsuit challenging the state’s voter identification requirements.

The Spirit Lake Nation and the Standing Rock Sioux, as well as six individual Native American plaintiffs, have a right to challenge the state’s requirement that voters have ID with a provable street address, U.S. District Judge Daniel Hovland wrote in his order.

The lawsuit filed in October 2018 by the Spirit Lake Sioux on behalf of itself and six tribal members came in the days leading up to the Nov. 6 general election that year. The suit that was later joined by the Standing Rock Sioux was part of a larger effort to ensure that members of all North Dakota tribes could vote following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that month in a similar but separate lawsuit filed by the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa.

Justices allowed the state to continue requiring voters to show identification with a provable street address -- which can be hard to come by on reservations -- as opposed to addresses such as post office boxes that many reservation residents have long relied on.

The Spirit Lake lawsuit seeks to have the residential address requirement as it applies to Native American voters ruled unconstitutional and a violation of the federal Voting Rights Act.

The state pushed for the lawsuit to be dismissed on grounds including that the tribes have not suffered any harm.

Hovland wrote that “The Court can see no reason why a federally recognized Indian Tribe would not have standing to sue to protect the voting rights of its members when private organizations like the NAACP and political parties are permitted to do so."

The state also argues that the six individual plaintiffs all were able to vote in the November 2018 election, but Hovland noted that they “fear they may not be allowed to vote in future elections.”

“This is a complex voting rights case,” Hovland wrote. "The Secretary (of state) has failed to carry his burden of demonstrating how each of the (lawsuit’s) claims is insufficient.”

Secretary of State Al Jaeger declined comment on the ruling.

Tim Purdon, an attorney for the tribes, said in a statement to the Tribune that they “are pleased with the Court’s decision reinforcing their right, as Sovereigns, to bring this lawsuit to protect the voting rights of their enrolled members in North Dakota.”

The secretary of state’s office maintains that the state’s voter ID requirements are aimed at preventing voting fraud. Some American Indians and advocates believe the Republican-dominated state government wants to subdue the vote of Native Americans, who tend to support Democrats.

North Dakota Native Vote, an effort to increase Native American voter turnout, launched in 2018 and last week announced its 2020 effort. On the same day, Jaeger announced that Gov. Doug Burgum had granted him emergency rulemaking authority to incorporate information from tribal IDs into new electronic pollbooks that will be used in the June primary election. The order also gives tribes the ability to quickly verify "set-aside" ballots, which are not counted until the voter proves his or her eligibility. Leaders of the Standing Rock Sioux and Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa said they were encouraged by the order.

 

Reach Blake Nicholson at 701-250-8266 or blake.nicholson@bismarcktribune.com.

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