Judge denies state's motion to dismiss voter ID suit brought by tribes
BISMARCK — A lawsuit alleging that North Dakota's voter identification laws are intentionally discriminatory against Native Americans will go forward after a U.S. District Court judge denied the state's motion to dismiss the case.
Judge Daniel Hovland, of Bismarck, ruled Monday, Feb. 10, that the Spirit Lake Nation, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and six enrolled tribal members have the legal standing to sue Secretary of State Al Jaeger over the laws, which require voters to present a form of identification that lists a valid residential address.
The tribes argue the laws, which were passed by the Republican-led Legislature in 2013 and amended two years later, put an undue burden on Native Americans living on reservations. Residential addresses often do not exist on the state's five reservations, and the plaintiffs argue many of those who do have addresses don't know them or have trouble finding them out. Republican lawmakers have said the laws are meant to prevent fraud and do not aim to suppress any voters.
The state contended the tribes don't have legal standing to sue because they have not suffered any harm. The state also argued the six tribal members failed to prove their claim that the street address requirement is overly burdensome because they were able to vote in the 2018 election. Hovland indicated that the plaintiffs fear they won't be permitted to vote in future elections.
The plaintiffs are seeking a declaration from the court that the laws violate their constitutional rights and an injunction that would remove the street address requirement. The tribes welcomed Monday's news that the case will not be dismissed.
“The Spirit Lake Nation and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe are pleased with the Court’s decision reinforcing their right, as Sovereigns, to bring suit to protect the voting rights of their enrolled members in North Dakota," the tribes' attorney, Tim Purdon, said in a statement.
Jaeger declined to comment on Monday's development. Purdon said a trial date for the case is now set for May.
The suit was originally filed a week before the Nov. 6, 2018 election. Hovland ruled then that an injunction could not be issued so close to an election.
In a separate but related 2016 case, members of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa sued Jaeger, making similar allegations of discrimination. Hovland ruled that the requirement of a street address was "excessively burdensome" on Native Americans and that the state must accept IDs and supplemental documentation with a current mailing address, which would have allowed post office boxes to be used. However, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Hovland's injunction, and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the appellate court's decision.
Jaeger announced an "emergency rulemaking" order Wednesday that will allow tribal officials to verify “set-aside” ballots cast by enrolled members. The ballots could then be counted after members prove their eligibility to vote.
The order also aims to ensure that electronic poll books are prepared to process tribal IDs that meet the state's requirements. The state plans to roll out 990 new electronic poll books, which are used to check voters in at the polling places, for the June 9 primary election.
Tribal leaders from Standing Rock and Turtle Mountain expressed their support for the order.
A group of Native American activists also launched a campaign Wednesday to promote voting access and turnout for North Dakota tribal members. The activists said the ID laws unfairly targets and suppresses the Native American vote.