Spirit Lake Nation challenges restrictive voter law on eve of election

With a key election less than a week away, the Spirit Lake Nation and six of the tribe's citizens have filed a new challenge to North Dakota's restrictive voter identification law.

The plaintiffs say the state law infringes on their right to vote because it forces them to obtain residential addresses, which are not common on their reservation. While the tribe has been providing new identification cards with such addresses, they say the state has failed to ensure that Spirit Lake voters will be able to cast ballots on November 6.

“The state has pushed through a voter identification system that is confusing and in disarray. And people living on reservations are being most affected," Native American Rights Fund attorney Matthew Campbell said in a press release on Tuesday.

In a case known as Brakebill v. Jaeger, the restrictive state law had been struck down by a federal judge in North Dakota. But the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals put a hold on that decision by a divided 2-1 vote on September 24.

The Native American Rights Fund subsequently asked the U.S. Supreme Court to get involved. But the justices, by a split vote of 6-2, refused to address the confusion surrounding the voter identification law, with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg saying the law puts Native voters, and even other North Dakotans, at risk of being disenfranchised.

Since the October 9 action, tribes have been scrambling to ensure their citizens can vote. They have been providing new voter identifications with residential addresses but the new lawsuit cites additional burdens facing the effort.

"The Spirit Lake Tribe does not have the resources to issue tribal IDs for free indefinitely," the complaint in Spirit Lake Tribe v. Jaeger states. The defendant is Secretary of State Al Jaeger, who is a Republican.

The election is a crucial one for the state. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat, is relying on the Native vote to help her secure a second term in office as polls show her trailing Kevin Cramer, a Republican with close ties to President Donald Trump.

Heitkamp has served on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs since arriving in the U.S. Senate in 2012 and has developed a strong record on tribal issues, particularly those affecting Native women and Native youth. Cramer, who has served in the U.S. House since 2013, has much less of a record.

With big issues at stake, the new lawsuit seeks clarification on how residential addresses on reservations will be handled. It cites numerous inconsistencies which could affect whether tribal citizens will be able to cast ballots on Tuesday.

"Figuring out the state’s peculiar listings for residential addresses on reservations should NOT be a pre-requisite to voting, and the Native American Rights Fund is committed to fighting these discriminatory policies," attorney Campbell said.

Read More on the Story
Native Americans fighting back against North Dakota voter ID law (NBC News October 31, 2018)
New lawsuit highlights struggles of Native Americans trying to vote in North Dakota (The Bismarck Tribune October 30, 2018)
Spirit Lake Sioux tribe sues North Dakota over voting rules (The Associated Press October 30, 2018)
Backlash over North Dakota voter ID law could rally Native Americans (The Center for Public Integrity October 30, 2018)
Native Americans Voting In 2018 Are Confronting Barriers — And It's Not Just Voter ID (Bustle October 30, 2018)
'So we can be heard': Tribes work to ensure Native Americans can vote (The Grand Forks Herald October 26, 2018)

8th Circuit Court of Appeals Decision
Brakebill v. Jaeger (September 24, 2018)

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