Spirit Lake Tribe v. Jaeger (ND Voter ID)

Attorney: Jacqueline De León, Matthew L. Campbell

Despite a nationwide outcry during the 2018 election cycle, North Dakota’s discriminatory voter ID law remains on the books. While the cameras have turned their attention elsewhere, the fight to protect our freedom to vote continues in the courts.

Read about related case Brakebill v. Jaeger, which also was filed in response to North Dakota’s voter ID law.

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NOTE TO VOTERS IN NORTH DAKOTA: Native Americans in North Dakota should show up to vote with their identifications. If the poll worker denies them their right to vote because of the residential address requirement, they should demand a set-aside ballot and immediately contact their community leaders for assistance.


February 28, 2019
Discriminatory North Dakota Voter ID Law Still In Effect

North Dakota Capitol

North Dakota has a long history of discriminating against Native Americans generally and denying Native Americans the right to vote in particular. Leading up to and during the 2018 elections, North Dakota Native voters saw an outpouring of support as they fought to be able to vote under the state’s recently enacted voter ID law. The law, which went into effect as the election was getting underway, required voters to have identification that included a current residential address. This requirement poses a problem unique to Native American voters because the state and counties have failed to provide basic governmental services for individuals living on rural reservations. Specifically, they have neglected to correctly and uniformly assign residential addresses for Native American residents.

The law, as applied to Native Americans living on reservations, is unconstitutional and violates the Voting Rights Act. For that reason, the Spirit Lake Tribe and Standing Rock Sioux Tribe together with individuals Dion Jackson, Kara Longie, Kim Twinn, Terry Yellow Fat, Leslie Peltier, and Clark Peltier, filed suit asking the courts to declare the law unconstitutional and to stop the enforcement of the ID and address requirements for residents of certain affected reservations and counties on February 28, 2019. According to NARF Staff Attorney Jacqueline De León, “Despite significant public outrage at North Dakota’s discriminatory voter ID law, that law still is on the books. Tribes continue to commit significant resources and time working to ensure that their citizens will be able to simply participate in state and federal elections as is their constitutional right. NARF is proud to stand with the Spirit Lake and Standing Rock Sioux Tribes, and our brave individual plaintiffs, as they fight to fix the state’s broken voter ID laws.”

Many Native Americans who live in North Dakota have no residential address because the government has not assigned them one. Others have been assigned an address, but it was never communicated to them. Road signs are rare in rural areas of reservations, and many roads in North Dakota have been assigned multiple, conflicting names. Homes have been assigned multiple, conflicting numbers. Some homes have been identified as occupying two cities and zip codes. The lack of uniformity in addressing across North Dakota reservations creates a problem that could affect thousands of potential Native American voters. The state claimed that it could fairly administer the voter ID law, but the 2018 election showed otherwise. Voters with IDs listing their current addresses had their absentee ballot applications rejected as having “invalid” addresses.

NARF is committed to the long-term fight to protect tribal citizens’ voting rights. It is only with a functioning democracy that we can work towards an equitable society. The Tribes are represented by NARF and co-counsel, Campaign Legal Center and Tim Purdon.

November 1, 2018
Court Denies Temporary Restraining Order

November 1, 2018, US District Judge Daniel L. Hovland (District of North Dakota) denied the request for relief from the voter identification law. (Download order.)

Judge Hovland agreed with the plaintiffs about the disarray of the current system, and expressed grave concern about the issues of voter disenfranchisement raised in the Spirit Lake Tribe’s complaint saying, “The litany of problems identified in this new lawsuit were clearly predictable and certain to occur as the Court noted in its previous orders in Brakebill v. Jaeger.”  (Read more about the Brakebill case.)

However, despite these concerns, Judge Hovland declined to take action in the case with the election less than a week away fearing that any court order at this time would create even more confusion and chaos on the eve of the election.

While today’s decision is disappointing, NARF and CLC are considering the available options and will continue working to ensure all natives in North Dakota have proper documentation and the ability to exercise their right to vote.

October 30, 2018
Spirit Lake Tribe v. Jaeger

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.

This lawsuit is filed under the name: Spirit Lake Tribe v. Jaeger.

Read more about related case Brakebill v. Jaeger, which also was filed in response to North Dakota’s voter ID law.

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