Supreme Court Enables Mass Disenfranchisement of North Dakota’s Native Americans

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court chose to stand by and allow the war against voting to continue. Just a little less than a month before midterm elections that will determine control of Congress, the court decided not to block North Dakota’s restrictive voter ID law, which will make it harder for people in that state to cast their ballots.

Republicans in the state legislature insist that the law is needed to prevent voter fraud — despite there being virtually no evidence that such fraud is a problem. Instead, the real effect of their law will be to prevent voters whom they fear from going to the polls and having their say in who represents them.

The voter ID law was introduced just months after Senator Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat, eked out a narrow upset victory in 2012, winning by less than 3,000 votes. Republican lawmakers responded by passing restrictive voter ID legislation that all but guaranteed that large numbers of Native Americans — who tend to vote Democratic — wouldn’t be able to participate in the political process. Specifically, the law requires voters to bring to the polls an ID that displays a “current residential street address” or other supplemental documentation that provides proof of such an address.

This may seem like an innocuous requirement, but in practice, it’s likely to disenfranchise thousands of Native Americans, many of whom live on reservations in rural areas and don’t have street addresses. Since the U.S. Postal Service doesn’t provide residential mail delivery in remote areas, many members of North Dakota’s Native American tribes list their mailing addresses, like P.O. boxes, on their IDs. And some also don’t have supplemental documentation, like a utility bill or bank statement, because of homelessness or poverty. Now, because the Supreme Court refused to block the law, people who show up at their polling station with a P.O. box on their ID will be turned away.

The Native American Rights Fund sued North Dakota in early 2016, arguing that the law was unconstitutional and a violation of the Voting Rights Act. A federal district judge agreed, issuing a ruling in April that blocked the ID requirement, but the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit overturned that ruling in a 2-1 decision in September. The Supreme Court’s denial of the Native American Rights Fund’s emergency appeal means that the law will stand, creating a huge amount of confusion for thousands of voters whose IDs were valid for the June primaries but are no longer adequate for them to vote on Nov. 6. 

In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointed out exactly what’s at stake for North Dakota — 70,000 residents of the state lack an ID that qualifies under the new rules. That’s nearly 20 percent of the typical turnout for a midterm election. The ruling, Ginsburg said, “may lead to voters finding out at the polling place that they cannot vote because their formerly valid ID is now insufficient.”

In an election that may wind up being decided by just a few thousand votes, the court’s decision could be deeply consequential for the country, not just those who live in North Dakota.

There’s no reason to look away from the implications of this law: One of America’s major political parties is doing everything it can to restrict access to the electoral process. This is an attack that must be confronted for what it is — a threat to democratic governance that will have the effect of taking away the most basic right of a large number of vulnerable voters of color.  

The Supreme Court has repeatedly demonstrated that it won’t safeguard our right to vote, so now it’s up to us to make sure we elect representatives who will.


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Carol Dixon

I am retired from the Postal Service and worked in the Postal Box area keeping records. When making out an application for a PO Box an ID of the address of residence is required. The Service obviously is using the reservation what is called a unique address. In other words the reservation itself is an address, if it were not so they would not be able to get a PO Box because it would be considered against the rules and regulations of the Service. Drivers' license is the same. What address are they using? It is not suppose to be a PO Box, their light bills, has the reservation as their address. I hope this helps. A street grid is not necessary for an address. There are small towns in Illinois that does the same.

Anonymous

Thank you!

Anonymous

See, I would like to think this way, but reading up, it seems to specifically imply that you need some form of legal "street" address, like an actual name of a road or similar structure that your residence takes place on. Maybe it's just vague enough that it allows unscrupulous characters to turn away voters, but if Ginsburg and her colleagues are worried this will disenfranchise thousands of potential voters, I'm going to have to side with them on that issue. I doubt they're saying such things with some form of precedent for it. If this was truly innocuous, I doubt RBG would care so much to make a strongly worded dissent, but her worry is obviously that the law is worded in such a way as to allow people to arguably deny votes to those who had previously received them, while granting said individuals legal protection and even legal assurance to make such a call as to not allow a Native to vote. Realize that law isn't always concrete and so simple that "this is correct and this isn't" is something to easily determine, that's why we have judges, because there are many areas where the law is too vague to make a solid call one way or the other, meanings have to be interpreted based on intent of the law often, not just its direct wording (you can read a ton of cases on intent of the law versus letter of the law styled cases like this). In this case, I feel the wording may be intentionally vague so that people who make a call on the side of voting denial will have legal precedent to do so, they can make an argument that the letter of the law, that people need an exact street address, beats out the alleged intent of the law, to stop voter fraud by illegal individuals. Because Natives won't often have a direct street address, those who seek to use the letter of the law to deny them votes will essentially be given legal rights to do so, with an argument to back them up. (I'm also a lawyer in training with only minor school work done in the field, so I could be mistaken, but I do attempt to understand these issues in their full context before commenting)

Chris

Do you're implying that Native Americans are not capable of acquiring or do not possess something that I've never met anyone who didn't have one???

Dr. Timothy Leary

They expect the government to hold their hands and do everything for them just like all the Fergusonites do.

Anonymous

Chris, "You've never met anyone who didn't have one" is the key phrase here.

Anonymous

My ID in Virginia has a PO Box on it. If I lived in North Dakota this would be an issue that would prevent me from voting. They have ids., and this is purposefully meant to deny them the right to vote.

Anonymous

You might try for better reading comprehension, Chris. And better grammar. And while you're at it, this isn't about whom you've met.

Anonymous

Nothing implied. Plenty of people in very rural areas only have a PO Box. It's not just Native Americans. I remember people coming in with rural route numbers (not street addresses) that were finally changed in Virginia to street names so it was easier for public services to find them. And these people were living in nowhere near as remote an area as places can be in the West/Mid-West.

Toni

How are we suppose to do that when the republicans are cheating to win? Stacking the deck so they win.

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