TO'HAJIILEE, NM - NOVEMBER 2: Wilbert Hunt, 97, the oldest member of the Pueblo of Acoma, reviews a sample ballot with the help of his nephew, Eddie Hunt (R), before casting his ballot at the Acoma Tribal Center in Acoma, New Mexico. Wilbert said the first president he voted for was Woodrow Wilson and claims to have not missed an election since. Rick Scibelli/Getty Images

North Dakota will now provide Native Americans with no-cost identification to vote in a victory against racist voter ID laws⁠—but they still face shocking barriers to the ballot box nationwide.


Story Transcript

This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.

Kim Brown: Welcome to The Real News, I’m Kim Brown. The efforts to preclude nonwhite citizens from voting have continued to persist in the 21st century. Voter ID is the weapon du jour with conservative state legislatures over the past decade, placing onerous burdens on citizens of colors to in effect show their papers in order to exercise their right to vote. Now, this is what happened to Native Americans in North Dakota. People whose homes didn’t have formal addresses or who didn’t have birth certificates were made to jump through onerous hoops in order to participate in elections. But a new settlement reached last week could ease some of those challenges. And today we’re joined with Jacqueline De León. Jacqueline is a staff attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, which is a legal organization defending the rights of Native American tribes, organizations, and people. She has led hearings across Indian country on Native American voting rights and she practices ongoing litigation and legislative advocacy to enable Native American voters to participate in state and federal elections, and she joins us today from Boulder, Colorado. Thank you for being here, Jacqueline.

Jacquelin De Le…: Thank you so much for having me.

Kim Brown: So let’s start with what happened last week and go backwards so that we all can grasp how we’ve arrived at this point. So first off, Native American tribes were set to go to trial in May as the plaintiffs suing the state of North Dakota behind a voter suppression law involving securing so-called proper ID to cast a ballot, but last week a settlement was reached and tell us what happened as a result of that.

Jacquelin De Le…: We were happy to hear that the state was willing to enter into settlement negotiations after years and years of battle, and what the tribes effectively agreed to is that a voter who doesn’t have an address can go into the polling booth and mark on a map where their address is, indicate on the cross streets where it is that their house or where it is, even if they’re homeless, their tent is, and the state will then assign them an address. That vote will become a provisional ballot, the state will assign an address before the final tally of counts is made and then they will report back to the tribes that they have assigned that address and that that vote was counted. So we think that that’s a good solution for individuals that lack addresses. The state will also support the issuance of free IDs on the reservations 30 days before an election and some compensation for tribes issuing IDs and the acceptance of tribal letters to serve as ID.

Kim Brown: So how were Native Americans voting prior to the passage of this bill through the North Dakota legislature? Because it was not this complicated to vote prior to, I believe it was either 2012 or 2014 that the Republican controlled state house as a reaction to the Native American voting block, which helped to not only elect Barack Obama in 2012 but also saying Heidi Heitkamp to this, to the U.S. Senate in 2012. This law was enacted as an outgrowth of that. Can you explain to us how it was prior to the law being enacted and what caused the passage of this GOP initiative?

Jacquelin De Le…: So prior to the law, North Dakota was a very progressive state in a lot of ways. When it came to voting, there’s no voter registration, so an individual could go up to vote. At the time they had a thing called voucher, meaning that somebody from the community could say, I know… If for example, you didn’t have an identification, an individual could say, you know what, I know this person, so this person is from our precinct. And they can vouch for that voter. There also was an individual voter could attest that they were qualified under penalty of perjury. And basically that’s the voter swearing that they were qualified to vote. And that’s the fail safe mechanism that the district judge implemented after our victory in 2016 to allow voters to vote again. And so going back as to why it is that this very open system was changed.
And again, remember North Dakota is not a very populous state. What may not be feasible in a more populous state was very feasible in North Dakota where voters largely knew each other in very small communities. But in 2011 the legislature considered an ID bill and they ultimately decided that that ID bill would be too onerous to people who didn’t have an identification. And they were also informed at that time that Native Americans lack residential street addresses, and so they wouldn’t be able to comply with an ID requirement that required an address. And so they rejected a voter ID bill in 2011. In 2012 Heidi Heitkamp won a surprise victory for U.S. Senate. And immediately in the session following that election, the legislature passed the ID bill. It’s important to note that Heidi Heitkamp’s election was considered to be attributable to the Native American vote.
She won by 1% and so the Native American vote was seen as a block that carried her to victory. And so the passage of the ID bill in the subsequent legislative cycle in 2013 we think was a direct response to that election. They did not consider any other viewpoints. They didn’t open up the floor to debate. They used a legislative maneuver. Basically they attached the ID bill to another bill so it could be voted on without any discussion. And the effects in 2014 were immediate and severe. And that’s when NARFE got the call that many Native Americans were being turned away from the polling place.

Kim Brown: And it’s not a reach to say that the Native American voting blog helped deliver Heidi Heitkamp her U.S. Senate seat because she lost reelection in 2018 with this voter ID law firmly in place. Can, can we attribute her loss to Native Americans being denied access to the ballot box?

Jacquelin De Le…: So I think that what led to her victory in 2016 was a host of factors. She was facing a especially weak candidate due to some scandals that that candidate had and the Native American vote carried her over the top in that instance. And it was, I think widely acknowledged that it was the Native American vote that secured her victory.
In this last election cycle, she was facing a more formidable opponent. North Dakota is a traditionally Republican state. And there was, in this instance, exceptionally high turnout among Native Americans. And the reason was is that with the articulation of the injustice, with these years of litigation with us saying to the Native American tribes, you are being disenfranchised. And then with I think a national spotlight being put on North Dakota because the balance of the Senate was at play at the time, a ton of donations came into North Dakota to try and mobilize the native vote. And tribes issued, hundreds of IDs for free using those donated funds. And they also assigned addresses and tried to compensate for the suppressive effects of the law. And so it led to sort of a historic turnout. Now, if the law were to remain in place and the settlement hadn’t been reached, we think that the suppression would’ve continued when there weren’t sort of this surplus of money coming in due to national attention. And we think that that barrier would have led to decreased turnout over the years.

Kim Brown: So broadly Jacquelin what are the challenges surrounding voters in Indian country and what are some of the ongoing barriers to participation? Because it’s not easy for people of color across the spectrum to vote at all. And we know that Native Americans are the OGs of bearing the brunt of this colonial state, especially when it comes to oppressing people’s human rights, basic human rights, but certainly rights as citizens and trying to do that as voters. So what are the challenges that Native Americans are still dealing with in 2020

Jacquelin De Le…: So Native Americans face unreasonable barriers I think that would shock the conscience of everyday Americans. In the Duckwater Reservation in Nevada, individuals have to travel 140 miles to register. That’s crazy. Given the fact that there’s mountains in the region and road conditions, that’s a four to five hour trip one way. In order to cast a vote in person, tribes throughout Nevada have to travel over 100 miles. These kind of distances are unreasonable and they are prevalent throughout Indian country. Other tribes regularly face 40 or even 20 miles. But the problem is, is that those distances are on dirt roads and individuals have to leave a reservation in order to cast their ballot. And that can be incredibly costly, not just in the tank of gas that it takes to get and the hours that you have to commit to. I’m going to go vote, but also in childcare and other barriers that pop up when you have to travel those kinds of distances.
But I think that those distances also critically communicate to Native American communities that their votes are not important and that they don’t matter. And so Native Americans face just unreasonable distances when it comes to casting a ballot and registering. Other issues that face Native Americans are a digital divide. So 99% of tribes lack broadband access. It’s not uncommon for me to go onto a reservation and then immediately lose service. And so as states progress towards online registration, tribes are left out of that calculus.
Voter ID continues to be a problem in Indian country in South Dakota. They recently considered a bill and a decided that tribal ID wouldn’t be allowed for online registration. Native Americans also face hostility when they vote outside of their reservations. So not only do they have to travel these unreasonable distances to go and cast their ballot when they go outside of the reservation, there are tensions between the border town and the reservation and they have to go to these hostile areas.
For example, in Arizona, the Kaibab Band of Paiute Indians describe how their flow of water is regularly blocked by individuals in the border town, racial tensions are so high. And so when you place a polling location where there are really high racial tensions, people don’t feel comfortable going there. In Wisconsin, they also have a polling locations inside of a Sheriff’s office, which is a huge deterrent for individuals going to go vote. It’s intimidating. There’s also disrespect shown in South Dakota, native Americans were forced to vote out of a repurposed chicken coop and described the humiliation they felt when they saw feathers on the floor and no bathroom facilities. And so it’s a really discouraging landscape out there.
And I will also say that when you go to a border town that is hostile, that also communicates that your vote is unwanted and that border town does not necessarily have to host the polling location. There’s no reason why a polling location isn’t on a reservation. For example, in Crow Creek, they placed the polling location in Gann Valley, which has a whopping population of 12 people, instead of Fort Thompson that has a population of 1,200 people in a largely Native American population.

Kim Brown: Wow. These are issues that are numerous and indefinitely complex and in my opinion, absolutely under-reported. So hopefully we can check in with you in the future, Jacqueline, and you can bring us up to speed-

Jacquelin De Le…: Yes, I’d love to.

Kim Brown: On some of the challenges that our brothers and sisters in Indian country are facing. Jacqueline, we appreciate your time today. Thank you so very much.

Jacquelin De Le…: Thank you so much.

Kim Brown: And thank you for watching The Real News Network.

Kim Brown

Kim Brown has been covering national and international politics for over 10 years and has been a sought-after voice on issues on race and culture.