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After Supreme Court ruling, ND tribes work to ensure Native Americans can vote

Winona Fox, tribal enrollment assistant at the Spirit Lake Reservation, assists Henrietta Longie with a form for the new tribal ID card Wednesday, Oct. 24, at Fort Totten. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service1 / 3
Lionel Dunn checks out his tribal ID card at the Spirit Lake enrollment office in Fort Totten Wednesday, Oct. 24. The new updated ID's are being expedited at the reservation for the upcoming election. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service2 / 3
Vern Lambert, a member of the Spirit Lake Nation, takes a break at the Tribal Government office Wednesday, Oct. 24. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service3 / 3

FORT TOTTEN, N.D. -- Lionel Dunn was the 111th person to get a free tribal ID card from the Spirit Lake Nation.

The Fort Totten man checked out his new card with a smile Wednesday, Oct. 24, at the Blue Building, the center for tribal government on the reservation. Dunn was a part of a steady flow of tribal members who trickled into the building this week so they could get new IDs.

It’s all because of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld a state election law requiring North Dakotans to have a residential address on driver’s licenses or ID cards to vote.

“I didn’t even know it was going on,” Dunn said of the 6-2 ruling.

The Supreme Court opinion came Oct. 9, less than a month before the Nov. 6 midterm election. Still, the law is in effect for this year’s vote, and some have said it is a move to restrict voting on reservations.

“This law clearly discriminates against Native Americans in North Dakota,” Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Mike Faith said in a statement. “Our voices should be heard, and they should be heard fairly at the polls just like all other Americans.”

Many tribal members in North Dakota do not have residential street addresses. Instead, they have post office boxes. Before the ruling, it was estimated 18 percent of Native Americans in the state don’t have IDs with residential street addresses, compared to 11 percent for non-Native voters.

The Secretary of State’s Office has given tribes information on obtaining residential addresses through county 911 coordinators. In response, North Dakota tribes have been working to get free ID cards to tribal members.

Spirit Lake leaders are not letting the law hinder voters, Secretary-Treasurer Lonna Jackson-Street said. Instead, the tribe is doing everything it can to make sure members can get to the polls to vote. That includes giving free rides from homes to the polling places and keeping longer hours at the Blue Building so everyone has a chance to get a valid ID.

“We’re going to take this law that was imposed on the tribes to effectively provide tools for the next election so we’ll be better prepared,” she said. “As leaders, it is our duty to ensure our people are given every right to vote.”

Updating IDs

The enrollment office in Spirit Lake started printing free IDs Monday, Oct. 22. Typically, it prints 35 IDs a month, but because of the push to get members new IDs, it more than tripled that count in just three days.

“It’s been steady all day,” Enrollment Director Robin Smith said. “We just got a break.”

Tribal officials have reached out to about 200 residents who they believe do not have residential addresses on ID cards, Jackson-Street said.

Other tribes, including Standing Rock, started last week. Vice Chairman Ira Taken Alive said the response to get updated IDs has been overwhelming both in North and South Dakota -- the Standing Rock reservation covers area in both states.

More than 250 people have signed up for free IDs since the tribe started printing them, he said. The members feel empowered to have their voices heard in the election, especially since Standing Rock has members who are first-generation voters, he said.

“American Indians weren’t granted American citizenship until 1924,” he said, adding some states didn’t grant its tribal members the right to vote until the 1940s.

Standing Rock has set up a GoFundMe account to help pay for the cost of purchasing ID cards, providing free transportation for tribal members and filing voting information paperwork. As of Thursday, the page had raised more than $8,200.

The Three Affiliated Tribes on the Fort Berthold reservation got a head start in getting residents updated addresses, said Sevant Taft, the enrollment director for the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation. He started the move to use residential addresses on tribal IDs about a year and a half ago for the reservation.

“We were kind of ahead of the game on that one,” he said.

There are some MHA members with older IDs that don’t have physical addresses, Taft said. His office has issued about 100 ID cards since it started printing them for free last week.

Updating IDs has a silver lining, Jackson-Street said. The tribe will have updated 911 addresses that can enhance services to residents.

It is easy to cast a law like the one the Supreme Court upheld as discriminatory, but the overall reaction in Standing Rock is to work with the Secretary of State’s Office to ensure everyone has an opportunity to vote, Taken Alive said.

The more people who vote, the better, Taft said. “Especially since you put up this barrier, it seems like we’re getting people more interested in voting,” he said.

April Baumgarten

April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, and covers crime and education. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family raises registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college, she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as a city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.

Have a story idea? Contact Baumgarten at 701-780-1248.

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