Voter Issues

MAY 2020


• North Dakota: A federal judge overseeing a lawsuit challenging North Dakota Republicans' voter ID law has approved a settlement between Republican Secretary of State Al Jaeger and Native American voting rights advocates. The agreement will help protect voting access for Native voters who don't have a residential street address to ensure that they can still vote.

At issue was the law's requirement that voters have a home address on their ID in order for it to be valid. But because many Native Americans living on remote rural reservations lack postal service and therefore don't have a traditional address, a large number of IDs issued by the tribes would have been disqualified. Since many reservation residents also don't drive, they don't have driver's licenses, either.

As part of the settlement, Jaeger's office has agreed to work with the state Department of Transportation to help voters on reservations obtain a free non-driver ID within 30 days of future statewide elections. Native voters will also be able to mark their residence on a map and therefore shift the burden of verifying their address to the state. Officials will further be required to work to educate the public and train poll workers properly.

MARCH 2020

• North Dakota: Republican Gov. Doug Burgum has signed an executive order giving North Dakota counties the option to hold the state's June 9 downballot primaries entirely by mail. The order directs the secretary of state to send absentee ballot applications to all voters, with postage-paid return envelopes.

Burgum's order also allows counties to eliminate all in-person voting sites, however, which could potentially cause serious problems on Native reservations where mail service is limited. In addition, it could run afoul of federal laws requiring that voting be accessible to persons with disabilities, though the order does specify that officials must make "at least one assistive ballot marking device" available at each county's courthouse from 40 days prior to the election through Election Day.

• North Dakota: Election reformers have filed a ballot initiative to amend North Dakota's constitution in order to enact bipartisan redistricting reform and change both how North Dakotans cast their ballot and the electoral system they use.

The initiative would replace traditional primaries with a "top-four" system where the four candidates with the most support would advance to the general election regardless of party. From there, instant-runoff voting would be used to determine the winner. Additionally, the measure would require that any voting machines create a paper record of every vote (North Dakota currently uses paper ballots by default and voting machines for voters with disabilities) and that the secretary of state conduct routine audits of elections.

The other major change would be to remove the Republican-dominated legislature's control over state legislative redistricting (North Dakota only has a single congressional district, which covers the entire state). The proposal would hand redistricting over to the state Ethics Commission, which voters created with a 2018 ballot initiative. The Ethics Commission's five members are chosen unanimously by the governor and the majority and minority leaders of the state Senate. Commissioners can't be elected officials, candidates, or party officials, and unanimity would be required to pass any map.

The amendment would also impose several criteria on the maps commissioners could draw, listed in descending priority as follows: following federal law; equality based on total population; contiguity; ensuring minority groups and Native American tribes have an equal opportunity to elect their preferred candidates; barring maps that favor an incumbent, candidate, or party; keeping communities of interest whole; keeping local government jurisdictions, including tribal governments, whole; compactness; and maximizing political competitiveness.

It's unclear what would happen if the commissioners are unable to unanimously pass a map, since there is no provision in the amendment addressing such a scenario. Most likely, a federal or state court would step in to draw new districts, but there's no guarantee that judges would be bound by the specific criteria that the commission must follow. Nevertheless, either a commission or court-drawn map would likely be fairer than another decade of Republican gerrymandering.

To qualify for the ballot, supporters will have to gather nearly 27,000 signatures, equal to 4% of the state's 2010 census population.


North Dakota: Republican Gov. Doug Burgum and Republican Secretary of State Al Jaeger have adopted rules that could make it easier for Native Americans to vote and ensure that their ballot gets counted. The new rules will give Native tribal officials the authority to work with local election boards to verify provisional ballots cast by tribe members.

North Dakota is the only state in the country that doesn't require voter registration, but voters must show documentation and ID to prove that they are eligible on Election Day. Voters who lack such documents can cast a provisional ballot that only counts if they return with proof of identity. North Dakota does maintain a poll book of those who've voted in past elections to more easily confirm if voters are eligible, and these new rules will also include IDs issued by tribal governments in the poll book database to help facilitate that process.

North Dakota had been at the center of a firestorm in 2018 over voting restrictions that targeted Native American voters when Republicans passed a voter ID law that excluded most tribal IDs because many residents living on reservations lacked a residential address. However, the backlash to that voter ID law prompted activists to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to provide valid IDs to tribal members, and turnout on reservations in 2018 reached historic highs.

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