BISMARCK — Sisters Joletta and Theodora Bird Bear live across from one another on a remote stretch of western North Dakota highway roughly 9 miles east of Mandaree, a town of about 600 people on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. Their homes are just past a cluster of four roadside oil wells and before the recently paved intersection on the other side of the hill.

“Don’t look at Google,” says Joletta when offering directions to her home. “You’ll end up somewhere 30 miles away.”

Joletta and Theodora, Mandan Hidatsa members of the Three Affiliated Tribes, have spent most of their lives on rural Fort Berthold without street addresses that allow for easy mail delivery, nor mailboxes at the end of their long driveways.

To pick up her mail, Joletta drives to the Mandaree post office, where for more than 20 years her mother worked as the town postmaster. When she retired, Joletta succeeded her. All told, the Bird Bears staffed the Mandaree post office — a place of unique importance on North Dakota’s tribal lands — for more than 40 years.

With many homes like the Bird Bears’ lacking easily accessible addresses or regular route postal delivery, the post office provides a critical communication line and medical supply delivery to largely rural areas with below-average internet access and spotty cellphone coverage. For activist Nicole Donaghy, a Hunkpapa Lakota from the Standing Rock Sioux Nation and director at North Dakota Native Vote, an Indigenous voting rights group, the post office is “one of the very few lifelines that goes into a reservation.” It acts as a center of gravity for its region, a bedrock for community and a link to the country surrounding sovereign nations.

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But in recent months, the pandemic has pushed a once-obscure idea of universal vote-by-mail into the mainstream, especially in North Dakota as it emerged as one of the states with the highest rates of COVID-19 transmission in the country.

North Dakota is among the states that have pivoted quickly toward a mail-in system for the upcoming election, scaling back in-person voting options this November by close to 50%. For the Bird Bear sisters who really want to cast their ballots in person, that means an hourlong drive to the nearest polling place. This year, their county is offering just two, both more than 40 miles from their homes.

With just two weeks to go until Election Day, tribal groups in North Dakota are grappling to preserve reservation turnout in the revamped pandemic election system. Old ways like large carpools and buses to the polls are no longer safe solutions in times of social distancing, and most of Donaghy’s appeals to election officials to expand in-person voting options have fallen flat.

This year, Native Vote’s get-out-the-vote efforts have been mostly confined to social media campaigns and Zoom events. Field organizers, recruited by Native Vote, have helped to get the word out about this year’s unusual election system on four of the state’s reservations — Standing Rock, Fort Berthold, Turtle Mountain and Spirit Lake — but the barriers of the election remain steep. During election tabling training on the Spirit Lake Reservation in early October, Iris Walking Eagle, a Native Vote organizer who lives on the reservation, cited the discreet communities of the area and the lack of accessible or communal transportation as possible barriers to residents trying to reach the polls or the post office.

In rural communities like the one on Fort Berthold, reliance on an underfunded post office with reduced hours could become a vulnerability this election. Activists argue that North Dakota’s new emphasis on mail-in balloting could mean fewer votes and less representation for Native American communities.

Many residents of North Dakota’s five tribal reservations must often drive tens of miles in one direction to reach the nearest post office. That distance only multiplies in the process of mailing a ballot application and picking up and sending back the ballot.

Nicole Donaghy, left, appeared on stage alongside Native Vote organizer Prairie Rose Seminole in a get-out-the-vote event ahead of the 2018 midterm elections. Photo courtesy of Nicole Donaghy
Nicole Donaghy, left, appeared on stage alongside Native Vote organizer Prairie Rose Seminole in a get-out-the-vote event ahead of the 2018 midterm elections. Photo courtesy of Nicole Donaghy

Donaghy, whose work is a rare bridge between North Dakota’s tribal lands and the state’s leadership, fears that a mostly mail-in election this November could throw the limits of reservation postal services into sharp relief, with their remote routes, the lack of easily accessible addressing and diminished funding.

Native American voting has found a new momentum here in the last few years, but that may be at risk this year as a mostly mail-in election could jeopardize the ballots of thousands of voters on reservations. In North Dakota, the pandemic has lengthened the work needed to cast a ballot on reservations and added to an existing climate of distrust between tribal groups and the state’s election officials, a rift that had grown deeper over the last few years.

Two years ago, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowed North Dakota to enforce a voter ID law requiring residents to show an ID that includes their street address in order to vote. In a state where many reservation residents rely on P.O. boxes and do not know their registered street address, Grant Christensen, a professor of Native American law at the University of North Dakota, said the law amounted to “a concerted effort to disenfranchise Native Americans in North Dakota.”

Even as the new voter ID requirements posed new barriers to voting, the law rallied voters to join in one of the most effective get-out-the-vote efforts ever organized on North Dakota’s tribal lands. That year, reservation turnout nearly doubled compared to the previous midterm — from approximately 6,987 ballots cast in 2014 on four of the state’s reservations to approximately 11,791 in 2018, according to Native Vote. That’s an increase from about 26% to 44% of the eligible voters across the state’s reservations, based on census estimates.

But with coronavirus cases climbing at an unmitigated pace in North Dakota, the kind of grassroots work that produced that result has become much harder.

And as the state gears up for an election that is expected to rely on mail-in ballots more than any other in U.S. history, the operations of the Mandaree post office and its postal service become even more crucial.

“It seems like it’s going to take a determined voter to make sure their vote is cast,” Joletta said.

For Christensen, the disparities highlighted by a mostly mail-in election in North Dakota mark just the latest episode in a long fight for Indigenous voting rights in the United States. Even after Native Americans were granted formal citizenship in 1924, many states complied with Native American voting rights reluctantly and late, with the last state legally acknowledging Native American suffrage in 1962.

And Christensen believes that the 2018 voter ID dispute may have led to less cooperation between tribal leadership and the state government leading up to the logistically complicated 2020 election. “There’s an animosity between tribal communities and the state here in the Dakotas that isn’t replicated in some of the states that have partnered with the tribes to make vote-by-mail work,” Christensen said.

Still, election officials in North Dakota say that they have taken all possible steps to ensure a smooth outcome on reservations and off in this election that's relying heavily on mail-in ballots. "We have had contact with all of the tribal governments in the state of North Dakota. We have indicated to them that we will be available to assist with them in any way," said Secretary of State Al Jaeger, noting that his office holds weekly meetings with the state's county auditors. Jaeger added that the number of polling places and ballot drop boxes ultimately fell to the auditors, who were in touch with tribal governments in making their decisions. "We're doing everything that we can for all voters in the state of North Dakota," he said.

For activist Nicole Donaghy, a reliance on mail-in voting puts reservation votes in jeopardy. “Those communities are already hard to reach by our grassroots organizing standards, but having the state come in and try to reach every voter to try to get a vote-by-mail ballot — it’s not going to turn out well for us,” she said.

Donaghy says “there are too many inadequacies for reservations to go fully vote-by-mail,” so, in the lead-up to the election, she has logged hundreds of hours trying to counteract a possible dive in Indigenous turnout. In an August letter, she called on county auditors to adjust their Election Day plans and to expand options for in-person voting. Most of the auditors have not responded.

But the Bird Bear sisters will not be deterred. As in 2018, they will forgo voting by mail at their old family post office in Mandaree. Instead, they will drive more than 50 miles south to cast their ballots at the Dunn County Courthouse.

“I think it’s important to see my ballot go into the system,” Theodora said.

This dispatch is an adaption of a story done in collaboration with The GroundTruth Project’s initiative called "On the Ground" with Report for America and PBS American Experience exploring the expansion of voting rights in communities across the U.S.