Spirit Lake Tribe v. Jaeger: Case filed to protect North Dakota voters

On October 30, 2018, the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), Campaign Legal Center (CLC), Robins Kaplan LLP, and Cohen Milstein Sellers and Toll PLLC filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Spirit Lake Tribe and six individual plaintiffs (see the complaint and the plaintiff’s memo in support of a temporary restraining order) to ensure that eligible Native American voters residing on reservations in North Dakota will be able to cast a ballot in the 2018 midterm elections and in all future elections.

Under current law, North Dakotans can’t vote unless they have identification that shows their name, birth date, and residential address. Recent investigations demonstrate that the law threatens to disenfranchise not only those who do not have street addresses or access to the necessary ID but also those whose addresses the state deems “invalid.” The state’s own addressing system appears to be incomplete, contradictory, and prone to error on reservations.

North Dakota tribal communities have been mobilizing to provide the necessary IDs to those living on reservations, with no help from the state of North Dakota. Despite their efforts, North Dakota’s voter ID law could prevent many eligible Native Americans from casting a ballot in the upcoming election on November 6. The lawsuit asks the court to provide targeted relief for affected voters in time for Tuesday’s election.

NARF Staff Attorney Matthew Campbell stated, “The state has pushed through a voter identification system that is confusing and in disarray. And people living on reservations are being most affected. Reservation addresses in the state’s database are inconsistent, inaccurate, and uncertain. Homes are listed on streets identified as ‘unknown’ and in towns that are off the reservations. 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.”

“State policies should be designed to make it easier for all citizens to vote, but North Dakota’s voter ID law disenfranchises Native Americans living on reservations,” said Danielle Lang, senior legal counsel, voting rights and redistricting at CLC. “We have a choice between a democracy that includes all eligible voters and a system that excludes people based on their circumstances or backgrounds. Unless the court steps in, eligible Native American voters including our clients may be denied the right to vote next week due to the state’s deeply flawed system of assigning and verifying voters’ residential addresses.”

Many streets on the Spirit Lake Reservation do not have marked signs, and many houses are not labeled with numbers. The State of North Dakota has not provided the Spirit Lake Tribe with any resources to assist members in obtaining IDs with residential street addresses, as is now required by state law to cast a regular ballot. Many voters living on reservations may be at risk even though they have no reason to think that their IDs are insufficient due to the fact that their county – through an inconsistent 911-emergency addressing system that omits some residences – has assigned them a different address. Denied absentee ballot applications have been the warning sign for additional disenfranchisement to come if the court does not step in.

As if the address situation were not confusing enough, Secretary of State Alvin Jaeger has taken steps to worsen the situation, refusing to provide public comment on whether poll workers will accept addresses printed on newly issued IDs, while simultaneously warning that residential street addresses on IDs must not be “incorrect,” which creates a particular chill for Native American voters in light of the uncertainty caused by the response to the newly effective law.

On October 9, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to reinstate the statewide ban on enforcing the voter ID requirement, forcing Native Americans to work around the clock to comply with the law in the final month before the midterm elections. Today’s filing asks for more targeted relief based on evidence related to Secretary of State Jaeger’s enforcement of the law and is with the U.S. District Court of North Dakota Western Division, the same court that issued the April ban that ordered the state to accept otherwise valid forms of identification that listed either a current residential street address or mailing address.

Read the latest case updates at the NARF website.