Native American voters face poor access to polling sites, discrimination by poll workers and unfair identification requirements, tribal leaders told members of Congress who traveled Tuesday to a reservation in North Dakota where voting rights were a key issue in last year’s U.S. Senate race.
A House elections subcommittee’s meeting at the Standing Rock reservation was the latest in a series of on-site visits across the country on voting-rights issues. Activists told the panel that obstacles still remain more than five decades after Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, which aimed to eliminate such impediments for minority voters.
“There continues to be barriers — interpersonal and systemic — at our polling locations in our tribal communities and for our Native voters across the state,” said activist Prairie Rose Seminole, a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa & Arikara Nation in northwestern North Dakota.
The bulk of the two-hour hearing focused on North Dakota’s voter ID requirements, which have led to two federal lawsuits by tribes who allege the rules are discriminatory and suppress the American Indian vote, which leans Democrat in a Republican-dominant state.
The voter ID dispute drew national attention last fall because of a U.S. Senate race in North Dakota that was seen as critical to Republicans’ chances to keep control of the Senate. Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer defeated Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, who was seeking a second term.
North Dakota requires that a voter ID include a provable street address, which Secretary of State Al Jaeger says guards against fraud. Tribes allege the moves by state GOP leaders disenfranchised members who live on reservations where street addresses are uncommon or unknown and where post office boxes are the primary addresses.
“The state knew this and they used it to suppress tribal voters,” said Charles Walker, CEO of the Mandan, Hidatsa & Arikara Nation.
State officials have denied that. The U.S. Supreme Court in October allowed the state to continue requiring street addresses on voter IDs, though Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in a dissent that “the risk of voter confusion appears severe.”
The decision led to an intense effort by tribes and advocacy groups to get tribal members to the polls with proper ID during November’s general election. It was largely successful but cost the Spirit Lake and Standing Rock tribes a combined $14,000, in part because they waived normal fees for tribal IDs.
“Fifteen dollars is milk and bread for a week for a poor family,” said Turtle Mountain Chippewa attorney Alysia LaCounte, who broke down in tears during her testimony.
U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, an Illinois Republican, noted during the hearing that Cramer won handily despite high Native American voter turnout.
Native American Rights Fund attorney Jacqueline De Leon responded: “We don’t think that outrage is a get-out-the-vote strategy, right?”
“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 Sen. Heitkamp was running for re-election, and the Senate balance of power elevated this issue to the national stage,” DeLeon said.
Davis replied, “So this was all a conspiracy to beat Heidi Heitkamp?”
North Dakota Republican leaders have denied that Heitkamp’s surprise 2012 win influenced state voter ID law.
OJ Semans Sr., co-executive director of the Four Directions advocacy group, which has been successful in voting rights lawsuits in South Dakota and other states, implored the subcommittee to work to increase federal dollars that states can dedicate to helping Native American voters.
“The backbone of democracy is going to be given a brace, because people are going to vote,” he said.