Native Americans Again Seek to Protect their Right to Vote
Categories: Civil Rights/ Voting Rights
On December 13, 2017, the Native American Rights Fund again brought action against the state of North Dakota seeking to overturn North Dakota’s newest discriminatory voter ID law. NARF filed an amended complaint on behalf of Native American Plaintiffs impacted by the discriminatory law. Last year, NARF fought on behalf of Native American Plaintiffs to enjoin enforcement of North Dakota’s voter ID law, which disproportionately prevented Native Americans from exercising their right to vote. In that action, Judge Daniel L. Hovland of the U.S. District Court for the District of North Dakota found “[i]t is undisputed that the more severe conditions in which Native Americans live translates to disproportionate burdens when it comes to complying with the new voter ID laws.” Judge Hovland, therefore, held the law likely violated the U.S. Constitution because it disproportionately kept Native Americans from voting and required the state to provide a fail-safe mechanism for those without IDs in the 2016 general election. Judge Hovland wrote, “it is clear that a safety net is needed for those voters who simply cannot obtain a qualifying voter ID with reasonable effort.”
In light of this defeat, the legislature amended their law earlier this year, but the new law failed to include meaningful protections for voters’ rights. Today, Plaintiffs Richard Brakebill, Dorothy Herman, Della Merrick, Elvis Norquay, Ray Norquay, and Lucille Vivier amended their suit, which now challenges this recently enacted voter ID law, HB 1369. HB 1369 ignores the problems Judge Hovland identified in his previous opinion and perpetuates voter suppression tactics by requiring every voter to possess a narrowly prescribed form of ID. It also lacks the necessary fail-safe provisions that would ensure that qualified voters are not denied their right to vote. The Legislature passed these provisions despite knowing they would suppress the Native American vote. This law was implemented in order to deny qualified Native American voters access to the ballot box. The right to vote is a fundamental right in any democracy, and the Native American Rights Fund is committed to ensuring that our democratic values are protected. As NARF Staff Attorney Matt Campbell explains, “voting is a fundamental, constitutionally protected right, and we intend to protect that right. The North Dakota legislature was fully aware the impact this law would have on the Native population in North Dakota. Yet, they passed the law anyway.”
Fighting voter suppression has never been more timely or important. This year, North Dakota reduced the hours of the Drivers License Site—where voter IDs can be obtained—that is closest to Plaintiffs. That Site now operates the most restrictive hours of any location; it is open for less than five hours one day a month. There is not a single Driver’s License Site on an Indian reservation in North Dakota. Native Americans on the Lake Traverse Reservation, Fort Berthold Reservation, and Standing Rock Reservations have to travel an average of almost an hour just to access a Drivers License Site, some of which are only open for very limited hours.
The North Dakota legislature had an opportunity to address the real problem with voting in the state—voter disenfranchisement. Instead, it continues to chase the ghosts of illegal voters, an imagined problem—without providing any evidence whatsoever that such voter impersonation exists. In the course of litigation and in the three consecutive legislative sessions where voting bills were considered, there has simply been no demonstration that people are casting illegal ballots. As Judge Hovland noted, voter fraud in North Dakota “has been virtually non-existent.” But the difficulties for Native Americans seeking to obtain IDs are very real. And the North Dakota legislature has used the fact that Native Americans in North Dakota disproportionately lack IDs to craft a discriminatory law intended to keep Native Americans from casting their ballot.
NARF will continue to fight against these unconstitutional laws that insult the very fiber of our democracy. The government should not create unnecessary obstacles for qualified citizens to vote. And we, as a nation, must fight to ensure that every American is given the opportunity to vote in every election.
The plaintiffs are represented by the Native American Rights Fund, Richard de Bodo of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP, and Tom Dickson of the Dickson Law Office.