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For decades, multiple Indigenous tribes in North Dakota have sued the state for infringing on their voting rights, with mixed success. 

In 2011, they were successful in keeping polling places open in Benson County after they were closed, and since 2013 they’ve both won and lost lawsuits over the details of North Dakota’s voter ID requirements. 

Republicans in control of the state legislature and governor’s office continued to pass more restrictive laws. 

“When these laws changed so much, like this past legislative session, there were 21 bills that were proposed to amend voting laws in North Dakota, which was problematic because some of those were unconstitutional,” said Nicole Donaghy, executive director of North Dakota Native Voice. 

Last year, Republicans introduced bills to limit the time a person can vote at a polling place to 30 minutes, limit access to absentee voting, ban early voting and lengthen the residency requirement for voters to be eligible to vote. The first two were enacted into law, while the last two failed. 

“There’s been a lot of focus on how people vote here in North Dakota, and it’s making it harder for people,” Donaghy said. 

Earlier this year, two tribes, the Turtle Mountain Band of the Chippewas and Spirit Lake Nation, sued North Dakota over its new electoral maps saying they violate the federal Voting Rights Act by racially gerrymandering to dilute the influence and representation of their tribes. 

Gerrymandering Indigenous voters

North Dakota has a deep history of racially gerrymandering Indigenous voters. 

In 2000, the U.S. Department of Justice successfully sued Benson County to reverse a change in its five commissioner districts from geographic-based to at-large positions, which made it difficult for Indigenous voters to have representation. 

Indigenous voters made up 29% of the electorate at the time, so the DOJ wanted them to have the opportunity to elect a candidate in at least two of the five districts. Under the at-large system, not a single Indigenous candidate was able to win. The DOJ also argued that the at-large system violated Section 2 of the federal Voting Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination in voting practices or procedures based on race. 

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This project looks at the state of voting access, voting rights and inequities in political representation in all 50 states and Washington, D.C.

“Social, civic, and political life in Benson County is divided along racial lines,” the lawsuit said. “The racial polarization results in Native American candidates having less opportunity to solicit the votes of the majority of voters, who are white, than the opportunity available to white candidates to solicit the votes of those white voters.” 

This year, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians and Spirit Lake Nation sued North Dakota after they split their reservations into two legislative districts when redistricting instead of keeping them together as tribal leaders had asked. 

The tribes also stated, under the new maps, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians were packed into one of two subdistricts, essentially only allowing native voters there to select one of their two representatives for their state house district. 

“The packing of Native American voters into a single state house subdistrict, and the cracking of nearby Native American voters into two other districts dominated by white voters who bloc vote against Native Americans’ preferred candidates, unlawfully dilutes the voting rights of Turtle Mountain and Spirit Lake Native Americans in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act,” the lawsuit said.  

Before the North Dakota state legislature approved new legislative maps on Nov. 11, 2021, leaders of all five recognized tribes in the state testified in front of the North Dakota Legislative Council Redistricting Committee, stressing the importance of not dividing their communities. 

The case is still waiting to be decided in U.S. District Court. 

Voter ID

In 2013, the state legislature passed a law narrowing the scope of North Dakota’s voter ID requirements and laying out the acceptable forms of ID, which disenfranchised at least 5,000 Indigenous voters in the state, Donaghy said. 

In 2016, seven Indigenous voters filed a federal lawsuit against the state, laying out how North Dakota has historically attacked the voting rights of Native Americans. They were successful, and the new law was blocked

In 2017, the North Dakota state legislature came back and passed a similar law. Indigenous tribes sued again. The case was settled in 2020. Two tribes, Spirit Lake Nation and Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, signed a court order with North Dakota that forced the legislature to create an amendment to allow other forms of ID that do not require an address, such as a student ID. 

Many Indigenous residents of North Dakota who live on reservations do not have traditional addresses and many tribal IDs do not qualify under the state’s voter ID law. 

Advocates said they are still fighting to have the entire law tossed out. 

“The changing of the rules with IDs, I think gives us at least tribal governments a bit more authority in verifying the voters, and so that’s been helpful,” Donaghy said. “The process here is still complex, especially coming out of the pandemic. The previous election, the presidential election in 2020, we had lower turnout than expected. So we’re hoping to boost voter confidence again and get people back to the polls.” 

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DeArbea Walker is a freelance digital journalist who’s covered everything from the intersection of...