A federal judge rejected on Thursday a lawsuit brought by Native American voters disenfranchised by North Dakota’s draconian voter ID law. The decision likely means that hundreds, perhaps thousands of citizens will not be able to cast a ballot in November because they live on reservations.
Following Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp’s narrow victory in 2012, North Dakota’s Republican lawmakers passed a new law requiring voters to present an ID that lists their current residential street address. The measure plainly targeted Native Americans, many of whom live on rural reservations with no street names or residential addresses. Previously, residents could vote with a valid mailing address, allowing rural tribal voters to list their P.O. Box. Now they must provide an ID with their exact residency—something that many Native Americans don’t have and can’t get.
For that reason, U.S. District Judge Daniel L. Hovland halted this requirement in April, citing its “discriminatory and burdensome impact on Native Americans.” But the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision in September, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to reinstate Hovland’s ruling. (Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan dissented.) On Tuesday, a group of Native Americans returned to court with a new lawsuit demonstrating that the residential address rule did not merely burden their right to vote; it denied them access to the ballot altogether. Their suit explained how tribal voters simply could not obtain a residential address: The state’s mapping systems conflict with each other, as do the state’s different residency databases, meaning many voters cannot secure an official address in time for the election.
Despite these roadblocks, Hovland refused to block the law’s application to these unlucky voters and their tribe, Spirit Lake. Hovland conceded that their claims gave him “great cause for concern.” But he cited the Supreme Court’s Purcell principle, which warns lower courts not to alter voting laws shortly before an election due to the risk of voter confusion. In a jab at the 8th Circuit, Hovland noted that the problems highlighted in this lawsuit “were clearly predictable and certain to occur.” Yet because early voting has already begun—and the election is five days away—Hovland concluded that a new injunction “will create as much confusion as it will alleviate.”
This assertion is difficult to believe. In his earlier ruling, Hovland found that the new law would prevent about 5,000 Native American voters from casting a ballot. Although tribal governments have scrambled to hand out new IDs for free, voters like Terry Yellow Fat have no recourse. The state wrongly insists that Yellow Fat lives in a liquor store, and must use the store’s address to vote—but if he does so, he will break the law, because it is not actually his “fixed permanent dwelling.” It’s hard to see how a narrow order protecting people like Yellow Fat would’ve created any confusion.
Regardless, Hovland’s decision will almost certainly stand as the final word on this matter before the upcoming midterms. (The 8th Circuit and Supreme Court have already turned their backs to North Dakota’s disenfranchised Native American voters.) That’s terrible news for Heidi Heitkamp. This measure was designed to deny her a second term in the Senate by suppressing the votes of tribal voters, who tend to lean Democratic. It now appears that the law will work as intended.