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EXCLUSIVE: New North Dakota voter ID restriction threatens Native Americans’ ability to vote

Emergency services changed voters’ addresses in a government database without their permission -- which may invalidate hundreds of ID cards.

Robin Smith, Spirit Lake Tribe's enrollment director, works to determine why tribal IDs do not match the addresses in the state voter database with the tribe's Secretary-Treasurer Lonna Street.
Robin Smith, Spirit Lake Tribe's enrollment director, works to determine why tribal IDs do not match the addresses in the state voter database with the tribe's Secretary-Treasurer Lonna Street.

FORT TOTTEN, NORTH DAKOTA — Hundreds of Native American voters may be unable to vote in North Dakota this election because of a new rule that requires their addresses in a government database to exactly match the one on their ID cards. Many don’t match because local emergency services changed addresses in the database so officials could use GPS to more easily find locals’ homes in case of a emergency.

The problem was discovered Thursday while ThinkProgress was in the Spirit Lake Tribe’s enrollment offices reporting on ballot access issues in the area. A member of their tribe had recently had their absentee voter ballot rejected by the state because of an “invalid address.”

An election advocate (whose name ThinkProgress is withholding to protect sensitive information) inquired with the state about the rejection. The election advocate informed the Benson County Auditor’s office that county election officials were requiring the addresses on the tribal IDs to match the addresses in the state’s central voter database, which is maintained by the North Dakota Department of Transportation.

North Dakota secretary of state’s office, which administers elections across the state, did not return ThinkProgress’ request for comment.

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Members of the Spirit Lake Tribe had given their home addresses to the government by calling the county’s 9-1-1 communications office, according to Benson County Auditor Bonnie Erickson, so that office could find their homes in case of emergency. The emergency office in turn gave that database of addresses to the Department of Transportation. However, Spirit Lake officials had not been consulting with the DOT database to confirm the addresses were correct when creating the IDs.

Erickson told ThinkProgress that her office received 40 absentee ballot applications via mail on Oct. 22, and three were rejected because they included addresses that did not match the ones in the DOT database. She said Benson County’s 9-1-1 coordinator Starr Klemetsrud used GPS to check the addresses they had on file, then changed them when they appeared inaccurate. At one point, the new addresses were also changed in the DOT system, Erickson said.

Klemetsrud did not immediately return calls on Friday afternoon.

On Thursday, Robin Smith, enrollment director for Spirit Lake tribe, went down a list of tribal IDs she’s issued since Oct. 22, plugging in voters’ addresses into the state DOT website.

“That is not his address,” Smith told the tribe’s Secretary-Treasurer Lonna Street, who was standing over her shoulder. She plugged in another address for that specific voter, a tribal member. “His address ain’t even on here,” she said.

“Is this a form of disfranchisement? Today I would say yes it is.”

With ThinkProgress watching, Smith checked about a dozen voters’ addresses against the website, and found just one had the correct matching address. The others had mismatching towns, mismatching zip codes, and mismatching home numbers. Smith said she would need to print out new identifications — potentially for hundreds of voters — with the updated addresses, before Election Day.

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“Is this a form of disfranchisement? Today I would say yes it is, after going through that,” Street told ThinkProgress.

North Dakota’s track record of impeding Native American voters is ongoing: After Native Americans helped Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) win her narrow election upset in 2012, the North Dakota Republican legislature passed a law requiring voters present IDs with a residential mailing address when voting. Because many tribal members do not have formal mailing addresses on reservations (they rely on PO boxes), the law effectively stripped many Native Americans of their voting rights.

The Supreme Court recently ruled the law should remain in effect, and a federal judge on Thursday issued an order that a separate lawsuit challenging the law was too close to the election to move forward.

Since Oct. 22, Spirit Lake has scrambled to give everyone on the reservation a chance to comply with the new law and vote. Tribal officials have been giving out new tribal IDs for free — IDs with addresses that comply with the law. As of Thursday evening, 454 people have taken advantage of the new ID.

If a voter’s database address does not match their identification, he or she could bring in supplemental documentation to the polls such as a paycheck, utility bill, bank statement, check, or a document issued by a government agency or the tribal office that included their name, date of birth, and current address, Erickson said. And if they don’t have that information when they get to the polls, they can fill out a set-aside ballot, which would allow a canvassing board to review residency proof at a later date and determine if the vote should count, she added.

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But neither Spirit Lake election officials nor tribal members knew about the problem with the addresses, and none had reported having their address changed by county officials. People are likely to show up to the polls with no additional paperwork — because they didn’t know they needed it.

“That’s my fear. There were other people whose addresses were updated and not notified, so then what will happen to them?” said Street. “Why are they updating addresses and not notifying our people? Isn’t it common to notify people if their 9-1-1 address changes?”

Other tribes have been prepared for last-minute confusion. Officials from North Dakota’s Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation (MHA Nation) have been actively updating their tribal ID cards with the addresses in the state database, said Mark Fox, the MHA Nation’s chairman. But, Fox says, having an address that matches the state database should not matter legally, and MHA would consider filing suit if voters are turned away on election day.

“We are trying to get things to match but if we don’t, our legal position is that, that’s not required,” Fox said.