BISMARCK — The Spirit Lake Nation and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe have reached an agreement with the state of North Dakota settling a years-long dispute over voting rights for Native Americans, said tribal attorneys.

The agreement filed Friday, April 24, in federal court comes more than two months after a U.S. district judge denied North Dakota Secretary of State Al Jaeger’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit originally filed in 2016. Lawyers representing the tribes, the Campaign Legal Center and the Native American Rights Fund, were prepared to argue that restrictive voter ID laws enacted by the state in 2013 disenfranchised many people living on reservations who only had post office box addresses.

Jaeger has repeatedly said North Dakota’s voter ID law did not disenfranchise or discriminate against Native Americans. The plaintiffs and the plaintiff tribes alleged the 2013 law made voting burdensome for Native American voters, arguing that poverty, homelessness, longer travel distances, unreliable Department of Transportation sites, and incorrectly issued addresses kept many Native people from the voting polls.

“I think this is a great victory for the tribes and for the Native American voters,” said Mark Gaber, director of trial litigation for Campaign Legal Center. “All along one of the biggest problems here was that people living on reservations often don’t have assigned physical residential street addresses, and that became even more clear as we collected evidence. What this does is provide a remedy for that and that’s what we were asking for in the lawsuit.”

Buses were used at Standing Rock to help people get to the voting booths in 2018. C.S. Hagen / The Forum
Buses were used at Standing Rock to help people get to the voting booths in 2018. C.S. Hagen / The Forum

North Dakota’s agreement with the two tribes will ensure that tribal IDs and tribal designated street addresses are accepted as valid. The agreement will also cement commitments made by state officials to reimburse tribal expenses incurred while producing voter IDs.

Additionally, the agreement will allow Native Americans who do not have or do not know their residential street address to locate their residence on a map at the polls or when applying for an absentee ballot. The Secretary of State will also also work with the North Dakota Department of Transportation to develop a program with tribal governments to issue free non-driver photo IDs on every reservation statewide within 30 days of future statewide elections.

“Collectively, the two tribes have over 7,000 residents of voting age that will benefit from the consent decree, which will be in force for the statewide primary election on June 9,” a news release from the Campaign Legal Center stated.

The agreement still has to be approved by the courts, and the two-month delay was caused by logistical issues behind gathering the needed signatures, according to the Campaign Legal Center.

Jaeger said “we’re not quite done yet,” meaning that the agreement between the tribes still has to be approved by the courts, and he's awaiting the court's final decision.

“There's nothing in the settlement agreement that changes the law. Everything in the settlement describes what we're going to do and how we're going to go about doing it,” Jaeger said. "We want to work with the people here. We're working with them now and preparing for the June election."