On Oct. 14, Dion Jackson mailed in an absentee ballot application for the upcoming election. Jackson, an enrolled member of the Spirit Lake Tribe who lives on the Spirit Lake Reservation in North Dakota, is an American who is qualified to vote. But on Oct. 22, he received a letter explaining that his application had been rejected. The street address that Jackson had listed—the one that appears on his state-issued ID—was invalid, the letter explained. If he did not take further action, he would not be allowed to vote in the midterm election.
There is no street sign identifying Jackson’s street. There is no number on his house. A state database identifies his street as “Unknown2.” Jackson would not be permitted to vote because, according to the state, he has no real address.
Jackson’s struggle is currently playing out across North Dakota. A stringent new law that requires all voters to prove their residential street address has placed an immense burden on Native Americans in the state. Many live on rural reservations in houses with no residential address, rendering them incapable of casting a ballot. Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to block a lower court decision upholding this rule, over a pointed dissent by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Now Native American voters are back in court, asking a federal judge to grant them relief. This time, they aren’t just arguing that the law makes voting more onerous. They’ve demonstrated that the law may make it impossible for them to vote at all.
The new lawsuit, filed on Tuesday by the Campaign Legal Center, the Native American Rights Fund, and Robins Kaplan, vividly illustrates how Native American voters have wound up disenfranchised. For decades, North Dakotans could vote with a valid residential or mailing address, which allowed rural tribal voters to use their P.O. Box as identification. After Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp triumphed in 2012 by fewer than 3,000 votes, Republicans altered the law. Heitkamp won with strong support from Native Americans, so the GOP passed legislation that targeted their access to the franchise. The new law compels voters to present an ID at the polls that lists their current residential (not mailing) address—or, if voting by absentee ballot, provide one that corresponds to a state database.
U.S. District Judge Daniel L. Hovland blocked that requirement in April, citing its “discriminatory and burdensome impact on Native Americans.” He noted that if the law takes full effect in November, it will prevent about 5,000 Native American voters from casting a ballot. Yet the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Hovland by a 2–1 vote in September, allowing the state to enforce its residential street address rule for most voters. At the end of its opinion, however, the majority signaled that it was open to more limited relief: “If any resident of North Dakota lacks a current residential street address and is denied an opportunity to vote on that basis,” it wrote, “the courthouse doors remain open.”
The plaintiffs in this latest lawsuit take the majority at its word. Using maps, photographs, and GPS, they explain the bind that North Dakota has placed them in. There are no street signs to identify the roads on which their houses are located. In some instances, the state has given them conflicting information about their residential address. Consider these quandaries:
• Leslie and Clark Peltier are enrolled members of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians who live on reservation trust land. Their rural home has no address. During the 2012 election, a county representative assigned them the address 10296 40th Ave. NE, with no town or ZIP code. When they obtained driver’s licenses, the state identified their town as Belcourt, North Dakota, 58316. But the secretary of state’s database lists their town as St. John, North Dakota, 58369. They cannot vote unless they resolve this discrepancy—yet they have no apparent way of doing so.
• Terry Yellow Fat is an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe who lives in Fort Yates, North Dakota. Several years ago, the government put up a sign on his street that said “Buffalo Avenue,” so he assumed he lived on Buffalo Avenue. But when he asked the sheriff for his “911 address”—the location used for emergency services—he was told he lived on 1343 92nd St. In fact, that’s the address of a liquor store down the street from his house, yet the state now considers it to be his official address. Yellow Fat is thus caught in a Catch-22: To vote, he must produce an ID listing his address as 1343 92nd St. But if he uses that address to vote, he will be violating the law, because it is not actually the “fixed permanent dwelling” at which he resides.
• Ace Charette, an enrolled member of the Little Shell Tribe, lives in Rolette County with his fiancée, Andrea Riggs, an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation. They in a rental home that has no street address. To obtain a residential address, they contacted Rolla City Hall but were told they had to appear in person at a courthouse in Rolla, about 10 miles away. Andrea visited the courthouse three times before an employee was present who could assist her. This employee, who identified himself only as “Kurt,” stated that the county had two mapping programs that often conflicted with each other. Each produced a different address for Riggs and Charette’s house. He selected one and wrote it on a sheet of paper. This paper is the only official documentation that Riggs and Charette received indicating their address, and it is insufficient to vote.*
Since the 8th Circuit lifted the block on the new law, tribal governments have scrambled to hand out hundreds of new ID cards, usually for free. But thousands of Native Americans still don’t have identification with a residential street address deemed valid by the state. And as the examples above illustrate, hundreds more simply cannot get them at all. To make matters worse, North Dakota’s Republican Secretary of State Alvin Jaeger has indicated that he will strictly enforce the residential address requirement and refused to say whether he’ll accept newly printed tribal IDs.
In light of these roadblocks, Tuesday’s lawsuit urges the federal district court to block the residential address rule in counties that encompass Indian reservations—or, at a minimum, for the voters who brought this suit. As an alternative, the lawsuit proposes letting voters identify their residences on a precinct map to verify their eligibility. These solutions make a great deal of sense. If the “courthouse doors” truly “remain open,” after all, Native Americans’ ability to vote should not hinge on the competence of random officials like “Kurt.”
It is worth marveling at how far afield the North Dakota government has drifted from the original rationale behind its new law. When they introduced this legislation, Republicans claimed they were seeking to curb voter fraud. (There is no evidence that voter fraud is a problem in North Dakota, or anywhere else in the U.S.) Yet no one seriously claims that Native Americans are exploiting their lack of a residential address to cast illegal ballots. This legal battle has laid bare the law’s true intent—to disenfranchise minority voters who might give Heitkamp another term. Now Native Americans must plead with the courts to stop their state from voiding their vote. This is not what a democracy looks like.
Update, Nov. 2, 2018: This post has been updated to include more information about Ace Charette and Andrea Riggs’ struggle to establish a residential address.